Palestinians need Hanan Ashrawi

Yasser Arafat has finally signed into law, after five years, what amounts to a constitution for his Palestinian Authority. It opens the road toward democratic reform and change.

What is urgently required now, as US and European peace seekers shuttle around the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and Mr. Arafat forms a new Cabinet, is a reform-minded prime minister – a new post.

Such a leader should energetically manage the administrative cleanup so urgently needed to open the way for peace talks with Israel, and then help guide those talks. This would render moot Israel's refusal to talk to Arafat.

Arafat should accept the advice of mainly younger Palestinians and appoint the prominent woman politician and human rights advocate, Hanan Ashrawi, to head the new government. She could lead it to democratic principles, and a general sweeping up throughout Arafat's partially corrupt entourage.

Mrs. Ashrawi hails from a Christian family of Ramallah in the West Bank. As a graduate student at the American University of Beirut in the early 1970s, she performed valuable research for this reporter's 1973 book on Palestinians, cataloguing the professionals and achievers – from artists and scientists to academics and bankers – among the millions of Palestinians in the overseas diaspora.

As minister of higher education and research in the Palestinian Authority from 1996 to 1998, she was able to draw on this knowledge and her contacts with these brainy and successful Palestinians. Many of them have kept their distance from the Israeli-Palestinian violence and the turbulent politics of the Mideast.

As a young woman, Ashrawi had taken a different path. After earning her BA and MA degrees at the American University of Beirut and a PhD in medieval and comparative literature at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, she dived back into the boiling caldron of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1973, she created and then chaired the English Department at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank.

As a teacher and later as dean of Bir Zeit's faculty of arts, married and with two daughters of her own, Hanan Ashrawi found herself physically barring her classrooms to raiding Israeli soldiers who sometimes came to beat and arrest her nationalist-minded Arab students. Then she would calm Israeli officers with reasoned arguments.

This led to her founding Bir Zeit's legal aid committee and Human Rights Action Project. During the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, she served as a kind of public-relations contact with Israeli and foreign diplomats, academics, and journalists.

From 1991 to '93, she was the spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation to the US-Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and a key delegate in those talks. Although Arafat didn't take her into his confidence about the secret peace talks leading to the 1993 Oslo accords, Ashrawi afterward served the Palestinian Authority (PA) in senior capacities, including as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Ashrawi has consistently worked for Palestinian unity and against violence. She has doggedly swum against the current of mainstream Israeli and Palestinian opinion that there should be total separation of the two peoples. Once she put it to me this way: We are "foreordained or doomed, however you want to put it, to live together.... Otherwise you have permanent apartheid, à la South Africa, and permanent conflict."

In the current crescendo of terrorist violence, she has acknowledged that Arafat has no power to halt suicide bombings by groups such as the radically Islamist Hamas, or even by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Ashrawi recently noted that the PA communiqués disavowing the suicide attacks show that a serious debate "is taking place publicly and behind doors." As a PA loyalist, despite her past reservations about PA persons and policies, she thinks the Al Aqsa Brigades will eventually halt their attacks – provided Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ends his policies of assassinating Palestinian leaders and enlarging Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory.

Eyad Al Sarraj, a Palestinian intellectual, is advocating her for prime minister. Using the words of one of Ashrawi's female Palestinian supporters, he recently told the Greek newspaper Kathemerini: "She would have the authority to appoint whomever she sees fit in her cabinet. Her choice would be based on qualifications, not political, personal, or clan loyalties."

"The new cabinet," Dr. Al Sarraj continued, "has to organize the [Palestinian] security branches and bring them under the law, to collect weapons and help prepare parliamentary elections."

Equally important, as prime minister, Ashrawi could persuade highly educated and qualified Palestinians in the diaspora to come home and work with her. (Al Sarraj's sentiments have also been voiced by Israeli women who know Ashrawi and who support the Israeli peace movements.)

Ashrawi would not supplant Arafat, or his successor, as the titular head of the Palestinian nation. She might face tough opposition from senior or Muslim Palestinians annoyed or envying the respect she commands among Westerners and Israelis – or simply because she is a woman and a Christian.

But giving her a large share of responsibility for ending violence and moving to a peaceful, two-state system might prove the bold move that could help bring a longed-for peaceful closure.

• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent in the Mideast, is the author of 'Green March, Black September: The Story of the Palestinian Arabs' and other books on the Middle East and North Africa.

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