In the Shade of the Pine Trees (30/04/99)

In the current round of the struggle over Orient House, both Netanyahu and Feisal Husseini have something to gain.

Feisal Husseini, the PLO representative in Jerusalem, was late for our appointment. He's probably working by Palestinian time, I told myself. That's a fact: On both sides of the city of Jerusalem, riven as it is by hostility and animosity, there were two different time zones until a few days ago, because the Palestinians were later in applying summer time. The time is now the same on both sides of the city, but Husseini was still late.He drove to Gaza in the morning in his red Chevrolet. When he arrived there, he already knew that the Palestinian declaration of independence would probably be postponed, but when he came back in the afternoon to Jerusalem, he chose to pretend that everything was still open. Yes, he has, of course, an opinion on what has to be done, he said in a somewhat contemplative way, but he would rather share it with his friends before telling the Israeli press.

His friends would not be astonished if he were to say that President Clinton's letter to Arafat gives a good reason to postpone the declaration. Unlike the "state in the making" that the Jews set up in the 30 years before the Israeli declaration of independence, the Palestinians had previously thought of declaring a state before they had all the state's infrastructure of governance in place. The whole affair is just a matter of symbolism with no real meaning. Husseini is a moderate, realistic person, and a regular participant in meetings with Israeli leaders. He understands that a declaration of independence would help Netanyahu. This week he also threatened the prime minister: If Netanyahu did not let him function in Orient House, he would reveal all sorts of embarrassing details about his meetings with government representatives.

Ironically, his own status is influenced to a large extent by what Israeli politicians do in Jerusalem. He also gets stronger when the situation heats up. Mayor Ehud Olmert once promised to close Orient House within two days. It ended, as usually is the case with us, with nothing. However, when Olmert tempted Netanyahu to open the Temple Mount tunnel, the affair ended with dozens of dead. It was expected that the situation in the city would heat up before the elections, and Husseini has again found himself at the center of attention. That's good for him, but his ability to restrain a violent outburst is limited. An Israel Radio reporter called him this week to ask whether it was correct that Husseini intended to lead Friday prayers in a major demonstration to protest the plans to close his office. Husseini did not deny it, but asked the reporter in good Hebrew to delay publication of the story. If it was on the radio there would be no way the demonstration could be cancelled, he explained.

Netanyahu, in the meantime, is enjoying the status of a thug whose friends are restraining him. All the people responsible for the situation in Jerusalem are trying to postpone implementation of his decision to change the locks on the doors on a few offices in Orient House, apparently including Husseini's own office. Husseini, working with attorney Jawad Bulos, is playing dumb: In what room exactly am I breaking the law? At which desk? In the meantime, everybody understands each other and hopes that this story will stay on the back burner. Netanyahu too won't get anything out of a violent outburst in Jerusalem. Everyone is scared because it is not certain that they will manage to get through the next few weeks, until the second round of the elections, in peace.

The old stone building that was once a hotel and in the meantime has become a national symbol, like the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem in pre-state days, was built in a decorative style with a pointed roof, as if it were meant to be sent off to Disneyland. The nice guys who hang around the entrance and guard the place display a sense of friendly familiarity without the formality of a state. There is usually a black consular car on its way either in or out of the iron gates, and one quite often sees somebody with a TV camera. The press is welcome here, as it once was in the Jewish national headquarters in pre-state days. The tall pine trees that surround the building are also reminiscent of the British Mandate. Like the Jerusalem Palm Hotel or the American Colony, men in pith helmets and women with white parasols would sit here sipping cool lemonade between tennis games before tea. When Husseini wants to entertain his guests, they are serenaded by bagpipes.

This week Husseini received a few dozen Israelis who belong to Gush Shalom. Uri Avneri, now 76 years old, has brought with him Ilan Halevi, the first Israeli to join the PLO, who now divides his time between Ramallah and Paris; movie director Simone Bitton and other veterans of similar events. They propose to divide control of Jerusalem between a Jewish and an Arab state. No, they say, there won't be any problem with the garbage collection because there will be two municipalities. The Israeli municipality will pick up the Israeli garbage and the Palestinians will collect theirs. There will also be an overall municipality for coordination. Husseini greeted them cordially, and members of the Arab boy scouts played in their honor with bagpipes, trumpets and drums. This was followed by a satirical sketch for two actors.

One was wearing a blue suit and had a large suitcase. He was a passenger at Ben-Gurion airport and wanted to fly to Cairo. The second was an Israel security guard. The passenger did everything he could to please the guard, but the guard seemed not only stupid and nagging but also a bit of a homosexual. Feisal Husseini says he remembers such things from his own experience. When he used to cross the Allenby Bridge he was told to strip. They would usually allow him to stay in his underpants but was once stripped completely naked. In the airport, he says, the guards were more polite and usually just asked him off take off his jacket. Now he is usually treated with all due respect. It very much depends on the guard, he said.

The sketch had now reached the stage where the passenger had to tell the guard about the wonders of the strippers in Cairo night clubs, and Husseini took time off for a conversation under the pine trees. Yes, he said, they are talking more now about UN Resolution 181 from 1947, which said the country should be divided between a Jewish and Arab state. Netanyahu is to blame for that, Husseini said. If he had not suddenly protested about the meeting with consuls Husseini arranged in Orient House, as he did many times in the past, the European countries would not have even remembered Resolution 181. If the Europeans talk about it, then why shouldn't we? asks Husseini. Netanyahu brings up the Jerusalem issue for the elections and this is what happens.

On the face of it, says Husseini, the Palestinians are not happy with Resolution 181 because they have a right to the whole country. But because the Jews also claim a right to the whole country, one has to reach an agreement not to implement what each side regards as a right. The Palestinians now demand a state within the 1967 borders, Husseini said, and are willing to talk about it on the basis of Resolution 242 from 1967. But if Netanyahu doesn't want to talk about 242, they'll talk about 181. It's just a matter of tactics.

As the PLO representative in Jerusalem Husseini cannot, of course, agree to Resolution 181 because this resolution says that Jerusalem should be a separate entity under international control. Here, there is at least something in common to both of us, Husseini said this week. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want Jerusalem to be an international city.

After the elections, he says, this has to be discussed seriously. He does not know Ehud Barak, but he does know the Labor Party. It is not an easy partner for negotiations, and quite often capricious, Husseini said, but he prefers to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem with representatives of the Labor Party because his experience shows that Labor is more open to compromise. There is nothing to discuss with the Likud. Barak will not like this, I told him. The Likud will use this statement. That could be, said Husseini, but it's the truth. It will be easier for him with Labor.

The sketch reached its end. The passenger to Cairo is trying to persuade the guard that he is not planning to blow up the plane. He also knows a Jewish lady by the name of Mendelowitz. Maybe that will help. In the meantime, it turns out that the trip to Cairo is connected to his mother, who is mortally ill. The guard continues to torment him. Mrs. Mendelowitz didn't help. She was apparently allowed on the flight. The Arab passenger wasn't. The good people from Gush Shalom clapped. Only a few of them know Arabic. One of them even tried to find out who this Mendelowitz lady was.

Husseini talked to attorney Jawad Bulos on a hand-held radio. The police gave him a few days' extension - ostensibly against Netanyahu's position - to allow him to prepare his arguments against closing Orient House. It is highly doubtful that it will be closed. The evening settled over the pine trees and the birds made a great fuss. Husseini walked off, and so did the Gush Shalom people. At night, they were on TV