At the Madrid peace conference in late October 1991, for the first time in a century-old conflict, the Israelis were defeated by their Palestinian opponents. There was a palpable feeling of history in the making as Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, an elderly physician from Gaza and the head of the Palestinian delegation, delivered his opening address in the Grand Palace. Of all the presentation of the Palestinian case made by official spokesmen since the beginning of the conflict, this was undoubtedly the most eloquent as well as the most conciliatory and the most convincing. It would have been inconceivable for the PLO, despite its growing moderation, to make such an unambiguous peace overture to Israel. The PLO, in any case, had been excluded from the Madrid conference by the right-wing Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Evidently troubled by the conciliatory tone of Dr. Abdel Shafi’s speech, Shamir passed a note to an aide. An observer speculated that the note could well have said: “We made a big mistake. We should have insisted that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

The principal author of this remarkable speech was Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation. Hanan was born in Nablus on October 8, 1946, of a well-to-do Christian middle-class family. Her father, Daud Mikhail, was a doctor who joined the resistance against British control of Palestine. After the loss of Palestine in 1948, the family lived under Jordanian rule in Ramallah in what became known as the West Bank. From the Friends Girls School in Ramallah Hanan went to study English literature at the American University in Beirut. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967 turned her overnight into an exile. It also marked the beginning of her active involvement in the Palestinian revolution. In 1970, barred by the Israeli authorities from returning home, she enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in medieval English literature at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. There she combined radical political activism with her academic studies and began to make a place for herself in the US at a time when the word “Palestinian” was synonymous with “terrorist.” As the founder and only member of the Charlottesville branch of the Organization of Arab Students and as head of the American Friends of Free Palestine, she formed coalitions with an anti-Vietnam War group, women’s groups, and the Black Students Alliance.

A general amnesty for Palestinians enabled Dr. Ashrawi to return home to Ramallah and to rejoin her family in 1974. She settled into academic life as head of the English Department at Birzeit University. From the outset, she made clear her opposition to the occupation. Following her participation in a few student demonstrations and protest marches, she was arrested and taken before a military judge. “What are you doing here today?” asked the judge after Hanan chose to take her oath on the New Testament rather than the Koran or the Old Testament. “That’s a good question,” she replied calmly. “A very good question. Maybe you can answer it.” This experience led her to establish the University Legal Aid Committee to provide support for Palestinian students. Outside the university, she and a group of other women started feminist study groups and held consciousness-raising sessions about the treatment of women in different spheres of Palestinian life.

Hanan’s husband, Emile Ashrawi, was not a political activist but a musician, a drummer in a rock band that combined Arabic lyrics with contemporary music. They married in 1975, and had two daughters. With a helpful husband, Hanan was able to continue her many nationalist and feminist activities. Like many of her colleagues at Birzeit University, she had some contact with the leftist political factions of the PLO, but she did not join any one of them. She moved closer to the mainstream Fatah movement while always retaining her political independence.

The intifada, the spontaneous popular revolt against Israeli occupation which broke out in December 1987, drew Ashrawi deeper and deeper into politics. The intifada brought together the seemingly irreconcilable elements of Palestinian society in a joint campaign that pitted them against the formidable Israeli military machine. It was a heady experience which, despite all the suffering it entailed, released suppressed energies and gave the participants a sense of power, even of invincibility. Ashrawi was susceptible to the prevailing mood of exhilaration, but she also became more aware of the importance of organization, discipline, and self-criticism. She took the lead in devising ways to explain the Palestinian case, particularly in the press and on television.

As a matter of policy, Palestinians had refrained from talking to Israelis in a public debate. This was a way of withholding recognition of Israel; but it gave the Israelis exclusive access to the mass media and plenty of opportunities for blaming and misrepresenting the absent Palestinians. An invitation to debate face-to-face with Israelis on Ted Koppel’s Nightline in April 1988 gave Ashrawi just the opportunity that she had been looking for to break with the Palestinian tradition of verbal boycott. She seized the opportunity, she writes, to deliver three quite different messages: “to the world—that we wanted to be heard directly; to the Palestinians—that it was the time to take the initiative and speak out; to the Israelis—that we were ready to take them on.”


Encouraged by the result of this first public encounter, Ashrawi and a group of other political “independents” formed the Palestinian Political Committee, which held many of its meetings in her house. The objectives of the committee were to brief journalists and foreign visitors, to provide a pool of accredited speakers who could participate in conferences and seminars throughout the world, to present different options to the unified national leadership of the intifada, and to become a center for political and diplomatic activity in the occupied territories. Such activity was illegal then, but the danger only encouraged them to persist. Apart from being risky, this activity impinged heavily on Ashrawi’s home life. Zeina, her younger daughter, said: “I have leant my mother to the peace process.”

The peace process between the Palestinians and Israel, which culminated in the famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on September 13, 1993, is the main theme of Ashrawi’s revealing and highly readable memoirs. The book, as its title indicates, is not a work of diplomatic history but an inside account by one of the participants. She also tells us that she was encouraged to write this account by her friend Edward Said, who often lamented the lack of a Palestinian narrative to reveal their side of the truth.

Hanan Ashrawi is not a politician by choice, politics being her second career. Her literary background, however, inevitably influenced her political style. Her command of English was an obvious asset in putting across the Palestinian case, but precisely because she was not a professional politician, she was able to offer a new perspective on the Palestinian struggle. She raised the level of debate about Palestinian politics by concentrating on issues affecting daily life, by articulating the hopes and fears of ordinary Palestinians, by dwelling on issues of justice and morality, calling attention, for example, to Israel’s infringement of academic freedom, arbitrary deportations, and mistreatment of arrested Palestinians. Being a woman probably made it easier for her to speak about her own feelings and emotions and the human predicament of people who had been deprived of their land and forced into exile or to live under occupation; and this touched a chord with the Western audiences to whom she addressed herself. Although she presented her case with passion, and although she could be dogmatic, her listeners did not feel threatened or hectored by her. Even under severe pressure, she carried herself with dignity.

Like Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi understands the importance of Palestinians’ telling their own stories; unlike him, she also understands the requirements of pragmatic politics, the necessity of compromise not only with one’s enemies but also with one’s partners. Both of them are intellectuals with a passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause, and both have considerable expository and oratorical skills. The difference is that Ashrawi can translate ideas into a plan of action. Her approach to politics is informed by practical experience, by a sense of realism, by a capacity to balance conflicting considerations.

It was these political skills and not just her mastery of the English language that commended Ashrawi to Yasir Arafat as an envoy to the American government. Arafat knew that she had no personal ambitions for political power and that she would not threaten his position as the leader of the Palestinian political movement. Yet their relationship mirrored some of the tensions between the two major components of this movement: those in the occupied territories and those outside, al-dakhil and al-kharij. Both the Americans and the Israelis wanted the center of gravity within the Palestinian movement to shift from Tunis to the local leadership in the occupied territories, a shift that Arafat was determined to resist. However, in 1989 Arafat himself asked Ashrawi to meet with State Department officials and make a plea for upgrading the status of dialogue between the US and the PLO. That was the beginning of a role she was to play for the next six years, a role which gave her an increasingly visible international presence.

At the State Department, Ashrawi met three of James Baker’s aides, Dennis Ross, Dan Kurtzer, and Aaron Miller, who were later to be called “the peace processors.” By her own account, she was not exactly self-effacing:

Being, and perceiving myself to be, of the people and not officialdom, an envoy though not a diplomat, I exercised my option for directness and honesty. I brought with me an aspect of the innocence of the intifada, its wiliness to confront, to take the initiative, to assert itself, and not to succumb to intimidation. But most of all, I brought to that encounter, and subsequently to all others, that one essential sine qua non that was to become the most salient quality of Palestinian political discourse: the human dimension.

A year later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Yasir Arafat committed one of the worst blunders of his political careeer by literally embracing Sadam Hussein. That embrace put the PLO once again in the doghouse and exposed the Palestinians in the occupied territories to physical danger. Publicly, Saddam Hussein posed as the champion of the Palestinians; privately, when asked about the safety of the Palestinians should he attack Israel with Scud missiles, he is reported to have replied, “I am not separating lentils.” The local Palestinian leaders now had to steer a very careful course. For years Ashrawi and her colleagues had been trying to teach the language of peace: “Like Sisyphus we had laboriously rolled the rock of nonmilitary solutions uphill. Now, it seemed with the glorification of Mars, the rock was not only about to roll back, but to crush us in the process.”


Following the Gulf War, Ashrawi and a handful of leaders from the “inside,” led by Faisal Husseini, a prominent figure in the Fatah mainstream and the PLO in the occupied territories, participated in exploratory talks with Secretary of State Baker; these helped both to launch the Middle East peace process and to insure that the Palestinians would be part of it. George Bush proudly proclaimed that the Gulf War had laid the foundations for a “new world order.” Baker was charged with convening an international conference to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in this he saw the Palestinians from the occupied territories as a useful ally, but also one that could be disposed of if necessary. As Prime Minister Shamir kept stonewalling, Baker steadily intensified the pressure on the Palestinians. He tried to sell to the Palestinians any propositions that Israel seemed willing to accept, saying that this was the only way of getting Israel into the talks.

Baker and his aides shuffled back and forth between Israel and the Palestinians, carrying, as Ashrawi ruefully observed, a carrot for the Israelis and a stick for the Palestinians. Baker developed a healthy respect for his unconventional interlocutors, as one journalist travelling with him reported to Ashrawi. Rather flippantly she replied, “After a six-hour meeting with Shamir, he’ll find anybody likeable.” In these exploratory meetings, Husseini and Ashrawi resisted every attempt to create an alternative leadership to replace the PLO. Their task, as they sawit, wa to reprsent the PLO, not to replace it. While they were forced to yield to most of Shamir’s conditions on Palestinian representation in the planned peace conference, particularly the exclusion of Arafat, they maintained their long-term aim to get the PLO recognized as the legitimate voice of the Palestinians, and ultimately to get the PLO leaders to negotiate with Israel directly and officially.

Madrid was by far the most comprehensive of all Middle East peace conferences. It included the United States and the Soviet Union as cosponsors, United Nations and European Union observers, delegations from Israel and several Arab countries, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and some five thousand journalists from throughout the world. As the spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation, Hanan Ashrawi quickly emerged as the star of the show. That the PLO was excluded enabled her to present the Palestinian delegation as one made up mainly of academics and professionals who had come to Madrid to present the cause of their people. PLO leaders wanted the opening address to be delivered in Arabic, but Ashrawi persuaded them that it should be delivered in English, because it was aimed primarily at the American public. In preparing the address, Ashrawi writes, she felt driven by the need to capture in words the essence of the Palestinian experience and to help create an irresistible force for change. So moving was the speech that Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, a gentleman of the old school who was to deliver it, was afraid he would cry when he spoke. “Never mind, ma’lesh” said the author, “go ahead and cry. Heaven knows we have the right to cry; we have enough to cry about.”

In the intervals between plenary sessions Ashrawi was constantly getting attention, giving press briefings and interviews. The Israelis fielded a large professional public-relations team, but they clearly lost the game to Ashrawi. One of the Israeli experts described her as terrifyingly articulate, and her handling of the press was nothing short of brilliant. She was not intimated and she did not suffer from stage fright. She believed that the press was after the truth and that her ally was the verifiable truth, for example, about the ways Palestinians were deprived of elementary rights. At the final press briefing in Madrid, she ended by saying: “You have given me and the Palestinian people a fair hearing, and for that I’m deeply grateful.” She received a standing ovation from the reporters.

The second stage in the American-sponsored peace process were the bilateral talks between Israel and the Arab delegations which got under way in Washington in January 1992. Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi stayed on as the head of the Palestinian delegation, which consisted largely of doctors and academics from the occupied territories, while Dr. Ashrawi continued to be the spokesperson. One critic called these delegates “an arbitrary fistful,” but the press, on the whole, continued to portray them as intelligent and personally impressive. The PLO leadership in Tunis was still excluded from direct participation in the talks but was as determined as ever to call the shots. In this complex situation three different Palestinian groups were involved in the peace process: the delegation from Washington that conducted the negotiations; the Leadership Committee, which was headed by Arafat’s adviser, Nabil Sha’th; amd a Strategic Committee consisting of advisers and experts. Thrown together literally overnight, this diverse group of men and women functioned as a surprisingly coherent team.

The main constraint that impaired the work of the Palestinian team was constant interference from Tunis. Working with the PLO chairman had never been easy because of his autocratic and idiosyncratic style of decision-making and because he is vain and inept in roughly equal proportions. But Ashrawi makes it plan that now he began to develop an obsession, which verged on paranoia, with the threat of an “alternative leadership.” He feared that any progress made by the “people’s delegation” would undermine the status of the PLO and his own position as the leader of the Palestinian movement. He used the analogy of the drone that serves to fertilize the queen bee and is then left to die; he talked bitterly of the man who is revived in order to make him sign his will and then is left to die or is even gotten rid of. To fend off this imagined threat, Arafat resorted to manipulation, divide-and-run tactics, and petty intrigues. He was anxious to demonstrate that no progress could be achieved in the talks without is backing. He pulled strings from Tunis, and he went to remarkable lengths to show that only he could make decisions on behalf of the Palestinians.

Hanan Ashrawi had a special position within the Leadership Committee because she was its internationally known spokesperson and because she had close connections with American officials. She represented the Palestinian side in many talks, formal and informal, with Baker and his aides in the State Department and consequently she could speak with authority about the American position. But although liaison with the State Department was one of her official duties, it exposed her to the charge of being too close to the Americans. Some members of Arafat’s entourage, probably prompted by jealousy, started to question the reliability of her reports on the American position, and they even insinuated that she had sold out to them. Arafat himself was double-faced. When he saw her in Tunis he would be appreciative and ingratiating, calling her not only “a dear sister but the crown on our heads, taj rasna.” Behind her back, however, he could be every bit as dismissive and malicious as his subordinates.

The attitude of the Israeli negotiators posed quite different problems for Ashrawi. Throughout the first five rounds of the Washington talks, the Palestinians tried to engage the Israelis on substantive issues, such as withdrawal from the West Bank and the future of Jerusalem, but the Israelis remained slippery and evasive. They kept up the semblance of participation without addressing the real issues. That Yitzhak Shamir wanted the talks to go nowhere slowly was soon an open secret. As far as the backstage involvement of the PLO was concerned, Shamir preferred to pretend it did not exist. His intransigence contributed to the defeat of the Likud in the June 1992 elections. A few days later, Shamir confessed that he had intended all along to draw out the negotiations for ten years and to build more settlements in the occupied territories so that the talks would be irrelevant.

The Labor Party’s victory gave rise to optimistic forecasts that peace was around the corner. “The real test is yet to come,” Ashrawi cautioned her colleagues, “whether Rabin the bone-breaker can become Rabin the peace-maker.” To her dismay, even the modest expectations of the new Israeli prime minister were quickly shattered when he, too, refused to engage in serious negotiations.

A third source of frustration for the Palestinians was the American reluctance to take a more active part in managing the peace process, except when Israel needed bailing out. The peace process had started with two sponsors at Madrid, but one, the USSR, no longer existed, and the other, the US, became a spectator. With the approach of the 1992 presidential elections, George Bush and James Baker, faced with a strong possibility of defeat, relaxed what control they had over the peace talks and allowed Israel to take advantage of its superior power. Elections aside, moreover, no US administration was prepared to stand up to Israel, because there was no political advantage to be gained by doing so. The Palestinians, on the other hand, however just their cause might be, were seen as useless in advancing political careers whether on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Among themselves, Ashrawi writes, the Palestinians joked that the Americans only sent them “nonpapers,” because they looked on them as a “nonpeople” and that the Americans did not respond to most of the Palestinians’ memoranda because they regarded them as a “nondelegation.”

When Bill Clinton succeeded George Bush as president, the pro-Israeli bias in American policy became pronounced. The more evenhanded approach of the Bush administration was replaced by an “Israel-first” approach reminiscent of the Reagan administration. Clinton made it clear that he would not put pressure on Israel and he adopted a “hands off” attitude to the peace talks. At her first meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Ashrawi studied closely both what he said and how he said it and concluded that he had no personal interest in the outcome in the Middle East. The policy of the new administration, she observed, was characterized by hesitancy and vagueness. On the few occasions when the Clinton administration presented proposals to break the deadlock, they clearly reflected Israeli views. By the summer of 1993, the Palestinian negotiators gave up hope that the Clinton administration would have any serious influence on Israel’s positions, let alone come up with formulations they considered fair to Palestinians.

Consequently, Hanan Ashrawi became convinced that the basic format of the negotiations had to be changed if serious and discreet talks were to take place between the PLO and the Israeli government. Without her knowing it, America’s failure to move forward in Washington helped to make possible the secret negotiations in Oslo between the PLO and representatives of the Israeli government. The PLO had made numerous attempts to establish a “back channel” to Rabin, i.e., a secret means of negotiation with him, but Rabin did not respond. The meetings that Norwegian officials arranged in Oslo provided the first back channel that Rabin appeared to take seriously. Arafat, for his part, played a characteristically devious double game. He kept the official Palestinian negotiators in Washing completely in the dark about the secret talks in Oslo. Moreover, when the Oslo talks moved forward, Arafat started issuing hard-line instructions to Ashrawi and her colleagues in a deliberate attempt to block the Washington talks.

When Arafat told Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi to pass on to Christopher a paper whose terms they considered unacceptable, they obeyed his instructions and then promptly submitted their resignations, which were not accepted. This time Ashrawi made no attempt to conceal her anger. “We cannot go on,” she told Arafat to his face, “with conflicting instructions, multiple channels, lack of a coherent strategy, inconsistent political decision making, total disregard for our structures, and lack of accountability and openness in our internal work.” Then, at a specially convened meeting, she excoriated the members of the PLO Executive Committee based in Tunis, according them of stabbing her and her colleagues in the back.

On her next trip to Tunis, on August 26, 1993, Ashrawi was told about the Declaration of Principles that had been initialed in Oslo. She was not surprised by the existence of a back channel, only that this particular channel had succeeded. The next morning she and Faisal Husseini went to the office of Mahmud Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, and studied a copy of the agreement. Her first reaction was one of shock. It was clear to her that the PLO officials who had negotiated this agreement had not lived under occupation. It did not commit Israel to cease all settlement activity; it postponed the question of Jerusalem; and it said nothing about human rights. Like Husseini, she made clear her deep concern about the gaps in the agreement, the ambiguities, the lack of detail, and the absence of any mechanisms for supplementing it. While recognizing that the PLO had made some strategic political gains, as Abu Mazen pointed out, she also thought that the agreement had many potentially explosive provisions that could be turned to the disadvantage of the Palestinian side. In any case, it was clear to her that one chapter of Palestinian history was drawing to a close and another about to begin, and that she should start preparing to leave.

At the signing of the accord between the PLO and Israel on the South Lawn of the White House, Hanan Ashrawi sat in the tenth row. She offered to write the speech for the guerrilla chieftain to deliver in his new incarnation as world statesman. There was no doubt that she could produce a fitting sequel to the Madrid speech, but her offer was turned down. As it turned out, Arafat’s speech was remarkable for its flatness and banality. Yet his words, as someone told Ashrawi, were carefully chosen. The implicit message was that her kind of language was no longer useful. “The next phase,” she was told, “is not one for poets and intellectuals. It’s the era of hard-core politicians, one in which slogans are the weapons of a struggle for power. Self-interest produces clichés, not humanistic visions.”

Arafat offered Ashrawi a number of jobs in his new administration, which she wisely declined. It was only to be expected that they would break apart. For the self-styled President of Palestine had intended all along to follow the Algerian model, in which the politicians in exile had returned after independence to rule the country and had excluded from power the local leaders who had fought the French. Ashrawi was wise to preserve her political independence, because Arafat’s language, his values, and his vision for the future are quite different from her own. The need for democracy and for protection of human rights are only two of the issues on which they disagreed. She felt, as she writes toward the end of her book, that:

Our main challenge ahead was an integrated and comprehensive process of nation building and reconstruction, which required more than a police force and a political authority. We had to build the substance of the state, including the institutions of civil society, of participatory democracy and accountability, as well as the systems and structures that would regulate their work and bear the weight of statehood. The independence of the judiciary had to be guaranteed, while free and fair general elections must be held for a separate legislative council. The mentality, attitudes, and work procedures of the past were no longer applicable, and the worst thing our leadership could do would be to superimpose these on a new reality with a human substance that would reject them. It was up to us, I was convinced, to ease the transition and to ensure that the principles we had espoused and defended for so long would be translated into fact as the operative norms and systems of our future.

But the reasons she gave Arafat for declining his offer were tactfully phrased:

We have to turn the page, close one chapter and begin another. I will not be part of any political structure, nor will I accept any official post. From now on, I will be pursuing a different vision. I had entered the public political arena to serve the people and the cause, and for the last few years I’ve given it all I had. Now it’s time to move on, for each phase requires its own instruments and vehicles, its own language and people.

Hanan Ashrawi went on to establish and to head the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights. She views the work of the commission in hearing and investigating complaints of mistreatment as an important part of the process of institution-building. On the day Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority was sworn into office in Jericho, her human rights office in Jerusalem was already receiving “a flood of cases and complaints.”

In the meantime, the gulf between the expectations that attended the conclusion of the Oslo accord and the actual results is becoming more apparent each day. Arafat has not renounced his “revolutionary” mentality in favor of the commitment to “state-building” that Ashrawi advocated. His administration has been set up in an area amounting so far to about 6.5 percent of original Palestine. It is undemocratic and unpopular, and marked by growing repression.

Israeli pressure on Arafat to crack down harder on dissidents, especially those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, led him to create a new state security court. This controversial three-man court threatens the civil rights of the Palestinians and it reminds them of Israel’s military courts. Critics who used to sneer at Arafat as the Mayor of Gaza took to calling him the Sheriff of the Gaza Strip. As the head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, Ashrawi was bound to take a dim view of this court, which repeatedly flouted the rule of law. When her privately expressed warnings were ignored, she issued a statement at the beginning of May strongly condemning the security court’s procedures and practices. She also made it know that she may resign as head of the commission if nothing is done. Her statement amounts to a direct challenge to Arafat. Her relations with him have reached an all-time low.

One puts down Hanan Ashrawi’s memoirs with admiration for her courage and integrity and astonishment at her achievements. She rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Gulf War, one of the most difficult phases in Palestinian history since the disaster of 1948. She was an academic without a constituency, party, power base, or organization; her support from the leader of her movement was at best erratic. Yet she threw herself into political and diplomatic activity on behalf of her people, and she was spectacularly successful in projecting a new image of Palestinian nationalism as a rational and humane cause. Subjected for years to unrelenting pressures and drawn into a vortex of petty manipulations, she maintained her psychological balance and never lost her political bearings. She was the right person, at the right time, doing the right job, and doing it far better than any of the PLO apparatchiks. Her character and principles contrast sadly with those of Yasir Arafat and some of the men who surround him in his seedy little statelet in Gaza. It is tragic that the Palestinians cannot have her as one of their principal leaders at this crucial moment in their history.

This Issue

June 8, 1995