Hanan Ashrawi - Nir Kafri
Ashrawi today. "I think Israelis are going backward." Photo by Nir Kafri
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Many of the young Israeli men and women who gathered a few weeks ago in the spacious hall of the Muqata in Ramallah must have wondered about the identity of the dark-haired woman who had a place of honor at the dignitaries' table, between MK Shlomo Molla and former MK Colette Avital. Some of them were still in diapers when Hanan Ashrawi was making headlines. The meeting was organized by the Geneva Initiative and brought together Israeli and Palestinian legislators with Israeli peace activists.

When the Madrid peace conference convened in October 1991, Ashrawi, a professor of English literature from Ramallah, daughter of Daoud Mikhail, a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was appointed a member of the Palestinian negotiating team. She represented the new, enlightened face of the PLO: Palestinian patriot, peace-seeker, intellectual, woman and Christian all in one. The talks with the Israeli delegation, led by Elyakim Rubinstein, were limping along and getting nowhere when the astounding news of the completion of the Oslo peace accords broke in September 1993.

When the first reports came in, I was sitting near her in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Ashrawi asked me to translate for her the item from Haaretz that listed the main points of the agreement (the English edition of the newspaper did not yet exist ). "Are you sure there's nothing about a settlement freeze?" asked this neighbor of the Psagot settlement, not disguising her anger at her colleagues from Tunis. Today she explains that the Palestinian representatives at the Oslo talks, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala ) and Hassan Asfour, were living in exile and not sufficiently aware of what living under occupation and the theft of lands really meant.

"From the beginning, when we met with [Secretary of State James] Baker, we asked him to stop all settlements. He said the only way to stop them would be to start negotiations. And that has been the repeated mantra - negotiations will stop settlements. The only thing we got was settlement expansion, loss of land, and loss of credibility in the occupied territories; they saw there was a process for its own sake, without substance or application to reality."

Ashrawi says that right after the signing of the Oslo Accords she convinced Yasser Arafat to sign an order to establish an independent committee on human rights. It was the first order the PA chairman signed. And it was the first committee of its kind in the Arab world. Ashrawi served as its commissioner. Among other things, the committee works against false arrests and torture, illegal dismissals from the police force and failure to heed court rulings. In January 1996, Ashrawi was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as an independent candidate from the Jerusalem district. No candidate received more votes than she did.

For three years, she was the Palestinian minister of higher education and research. She founded the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, which deals with leadership, women's rights, information and policy.

In 2006, Ashrawi joined Salam Fayyad's independent Third Way party; after the party won two seats (out of 132 ) on the PLC, Ashrawi became a member of the committee supervising the negotiations. Last year, she ran as an independent candidate for a seat on the 18-member PLO Executive Committee. She became the first woman member of this senior body. Now 64, she has two daughters and three grandchildren.

Almost 20 years have passed since you first took part in negotiations with Israelis. Do you believe you will ever get to meet with us when we are no longer representing occupiers and occupied?

"When I was asked in the '90s whether we would see a PA state before the end of the century, I said of course - that's what I promised my daughters - we owe it to our children. And now here we are, and it's heartbreaking. But we can't give up. Maybe we have lost our innocence. We were enthusiastic, we had intent. I underestimated the anti-peace forces. I don't want to say we have become disillusioned; we are more realistic. But I will never give up the dream.

"I believe the Israelis never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. When matters come close, something happens and they back down. They think they are not really occupiers because of the wall, which is both physical and metaphorical - they are spared the ugliness of the occupation."

In 1991, President Bush compelled Prime Minister Shamir to choose between negotiations with a joint delegation comprised of Jordan and representatives from the territories, and a freeze on American aid (loan guarantees ) for immigrant absorption. Did you have hope then that salvation would come from Washington?

"The last time they acted decisively was in 1991-1992 - linking $10 million to the building of settlements. After that they bent over backward to give Israel rewards; Obama and Clinton promised Israel everything to reduce settlement building. The Americans are repeating the mistakes of the past by going into the process for its own sake. They have to have a clear basis - they need clear objectives, a time frame, arbitration - you cannot enter negotiations as though they were a fishing expedition.

"But the basis became one thing and the negotiation another. We ended up with the U.S. telling Israel they are willing to give everything if they steal a bit less of the land. The occupation became so profitable and the mere postponement of an illegal act meant such an enormous reward."

The Americans say they can't impose peace if the parties themselves don't feel any urgency to attain it.

"I've been doing my best and devoting the best years of my life to mustering support in our society for the two-state idea in the '67 borders. I don't know whether I can do reeducation, rehabilitation and psychotherapy for all the Israeli people. The change has to come from inside them."

Many of your comrades have despaired of the two-state idea and begun calling instead for a one-state solution.

"The one-state solution is not realistic. Israel will not give us all passports and share political power. Looking closely at the society, I think Israelis are going backward, moving toward racism. They are more closed in, understand Palestinians much less. The peace camp in Israel has disappeared. I am still in touch with Israeli friends. We have relations, but not as frequent as before.

"Salam Fayyad's plan to end occupation and build a state will come to fruition in the next year. It's been three years since the launching of negotiations at Annapolis and two years since that ended. The two-state solution is becoming almost impossible. How are you going to dismantle settlements when they are growing from day to day?

"Time is running out, and when reality overtakes all of us it will be beyond our control. I still believe that there are some sane and responsible people who will challenge this."