Precise defender of the PLO cause

Middle East peace: A deal between Damascus and Israel could leave the Palestinians out in the cold; Hanan Ashrawi tells Robert Fisk in Ramallah of her hopes for the power and effectiveness of the legislature to be elected next month
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Hanan Ashrawi is a journalist's dream. She speaks in complete sentences and, at times, you wait for her to add the words "full stop" at the end. The academic arguments and demands for human rights of the PLO's former envoy to Washington match her grammar. They appear to be perfect, unarguable. Why not, you ask yourself, let Hanan Ashrawi write the article?

Why, she can even convince a sceptic that the broken-backed "peace process" might yet contain some life, semi-comatose for the present perhaps but capable of future development. And that - given the maintenance of Jewish settlements in occupied land, the refusal of the Israelis to contemplate a Palestinian as well as an Israeli capital in Jerusalem, the virtual exclusion of the entire Palestinian diaspora of up to 3 million souls - is quite an achievement.

The most famous English literature teacher in the world sits in her Ramallah home refusing to comment on the fact everyone knows: that she is to be a candidate for Jerusalem in the 20 January elections for the 83-seat Palestinian legislature.

Despite the rumours of nepotism, the growing evidence of tribal loyalties that will divide rather than unite Palestinians, she believes in these elections. "They come within the framework of an agreement that is inherently unfair," she says. "I'm not saying the legislature is going to be pure and clean and perfect. But elections are one of the instruments of change here and part of self-empowerment. We should use them to the hilt. They can create legislators who can supervise the permanent status negotiations'' on Jerusalem, settlements and refugees.

Already, Palestinian seats are being divided up on sectarian lines. "But elections are very healthy," Mrs Ashrawi insists. "And you must not forget two important factors: the role of women and the role of the young - those who have been activists (sic) are also going to make a difference. They will be independent-minded. And I think Hamas [the largest Islamist group, which is boycotting the elections] should run. We should have inclusive democracy, comprehensive democracy. I have told Hamas: 'You are depriving your supporters of the right to representation'."

And settlements? What of those tens of thousands of Jewish homes spread across the land which we now have to think of as "Palestine", along with their 120,000 Israeli inhabitants? "I don't think the settlers are monolithic. I think there are a considerable number of 'economic' settlers who, with compensation and new housing in Israel, would leave. The ideologues are the dangerous ones, who carry a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other; but even some of these would be prepared to live in a Palestinian state. But the greatest danger are the hard-line ideologues who have divine dispensation to stay on our land - this is not just a Palestinian problem but an Israeli problem. These settlers are armed and they have the power of life and death over us - and if they go back to their own society [inside Israel], they will continue to act like that."

Hanan Ashrawi knew Yitzhak Rabin as she knows Shimon Peres and she sees his assassination as a product of the Israeli government's miscalculations. "It was political expediency - the Israelis thought they could use the settlers as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with us. We kept predicting that the settlers would become very dangerous, that they would kill Israeli soldiers [who tried to move them]. We didn't think they would go to the top. Now that kind of divine settler power is truly lethal."

Mrs Ashrawi muses on what she regards as the double standards of the Middle East. "No-one who killed an Arab was ever called a 'terrorist' - it was all right to kill an Arab," she says. "But now the one-sided use of the word 'terrorist' has backfired, because the Israelis never believed that their moral 'high ground' would allow a Jew to kill a Jew. There had been all this escalation of rhetoric and verbal abuse [against Rabin] and there had been a very strange marriage between ultra-Orthodox Jews and ultra-nationalist Jews."

Which is why, Mrs Ashrawi says, the settlers are not just a political issue. "Israel cannot have it both ways - to argue about both ideology and political pragmatism. If they want to talk about ideology, they can talk to Hamas. If they genuinely want to talk peace, they have to discuss with us all things based on international law - and that means settlements and Jerusalem." She says there is an inherent bias against the Palestinians. "But you don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Our self-interest is legitimate. We've dealt with ideals for so many years. Our dignity lies in controlling the crossing points and securing the sovereignty of our land. We have the strength of argument."

True or not, few Palestinians are in any doubts about the importance of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and it is here that Mrs Ashrawi sounds a false note. "We encourage the Syrians and if the Syrians and Israelis can make a fair peace, it will help us," she says. But is that really true at the moment? For if Syria signed up for peace before the final Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, it would leave the Palestinians as the only party in the Middle East conflict without a peace treaty. The Palestinians would be out in the cold, with no pressure on the Israelis to move beyond the "interim" phase of PLO "cantons" and a powerless legislature.

There must be many a Palestinian democrat who secretly hopes that Syria's President Assad holds out for longer. Mrs Ashrawi will not comment. So you put "full stop" in your notebook.