The Middle East / April 1998
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Hasan Abdel-Rahman always had a desire to see the world, and it was his burning curiosity that in the early 1960s led him from his small West Bank village near Ramallah to Amman, Damascus, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and finally, his political coming of age in the unlikely Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
Today, Abdel-Rahman, 53, is the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United States. Although he neither carries the title of ambassador nor enjoys diplomatic immunity, Abdel-Rahman is clearly Yasser Arafat's man in Washington -- and the Palestinian peoples' official voice in a nation that for years viewed Arafat and the PLO as nothing more than a bunch of terrorists.
Sitting at his desk under a framed portrait of the famous Palestinian leader, Abdel-Rahman -- who speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and some French in addition to his native Arabic -- talked about what it's like to represent a nation that has yet to be born in the traditional sense.
"It's a country, but it's not a full state," he explained, showing The Middle East his newly issued red Palestinian passport during a recent interview. "It's a government that has jurisdiction over people and over land. The PLO is recognized as the representative of these people, and it conducts foreign relations on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority."
According to Abdel-Rahman, nearly all of the PLO's 95 diplomatic missions abroad have full embassy status -- particularly in Asian, African and Arab nations that traditionally sided with the Palestinians in the armed struggle against Israel that has defined the PLO during most of its 34-year existence.
In Washington, the Palestinians have staffed a mission since 1979 under various names -- first as the Palestine Information Office, then from 1988 until 1993 as the Palestine Affairs Center. After the Oslo peace accords were signed between Israel and the PLO, the modest mission on K Street changed its name once again, becoming the PLO Representative Office. Little distinguishes this office from any other diplomatic legation here, except for the obligatory photos of Arafat on the walls, a laminated-wood clock in the shape of Palestine, flyers urging the United States not to invade Iraq and a framed picture of President Clinton, Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn.
For Abdel-Rahman, being in Washington is the culmination of a lifetime of political activism that had its roots in Syria, where in the early 1960s the young Palestinian was just beginning his studies at the University of Damascus.
"We were part of the Arab nationalist movement, a rival of the Ba'ath party. In 1964, we started having problems with the Syrian regime, so I had to leave the country," he recalled. "I went to South America, spending one year in Argentina and three years in Brazil -- mostly Rio de Janeiro -- then came to the Caribbean and spent two more years working and traveling throughout the region. I did odd jobs in Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua, St. Kitts and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands."
Finally, shocked into reality by the Six-Day War of 1967 -- in which Israel defeated her Arab enemies and occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula -- Abdel-Rahman decided he had to "do something."
"After the war, I rethought my life and redirected it into politics," he said. "I decided that in order to be able to serve my country, I had to be prepared."
So in 1968, Abdel-Rahman, a Muslim, enrolled at the bilingual Catholic University in Puerto Rico, where three years later he graduated with a bachelor's degree in policial science and sociology. In 1972, he earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.
"During my years at Catholic University, I was the only Arab student of any nationality," says Abdel-Rahman, who came to know Puerto Rico's tiny Arab minority quite well. "And I was the first Palestinian ever to graduate from either school."
In fact, it was in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Abdel-Rahman not only joined the PLO but dove head-first into the island's never-ending status debate, allowing himself to be swept up by the bitterly anti-American independence movement of the time. "I was good friends with all the political leaders of Puerto Rico -- Juan Marí Bras, Rubén Berrios, Bennie Frankie Cerezo, Rafael Hernández Colón," he said. "I used to host all of them together."
Abdel-Rahman still has a memento of that era -- a photograph taken at a Puerto Rican Socialist Party rally at San Juan's Roberto Clemente Coliseum. In the picture, the young Arab is wearing a guayabera, arms raised in solidarity with party founder Juan Marí Bras, whom he calls "one of the most charismatic figures in modern Puerto Rican history."
Says the diplomat: "It's not a secret that I supported independence for Puerto Rico. I felt Puerto Ricans constituted a separate nation. However, I was never a communist, though I supported some form of social democracy."
While in San Juan, Abdel-Rahman says he worked with local Arabs, "raising funds to support the PLO, the families of Palestinian prisoners and martyrs, and humanitarian institutions such as the Red Crescent." After graduating from UPR, he was offered a fellowship for a Ph.D. at City University of New York in comparative politics and international relations.
Asked if there's any parallel between the Palestinian and Puerto Rican demands for self-determination, Abdel-Rahman says he has "serious ambivalence" about the two situations. "Ours was more like South Africa," he explained. "I thought that the Zionist invasion of Palestine was illegal, and that the dismemberment of Palestinian society and the uprooting of the Palestinian people in order to establish a state of foreigners was a classical settler-colonial situation.
"I grew up to think that the conflict was between Jews and Palestinians, and that those Jews were responsible for the tragedy of the Palestinian people. So the conflict for me was clear-cut, black and white. Later on, as I grew older and became more involved, I came in contact with Jews and Israelis who changed my views. I realized that you have to look at Israel from a totally different angle. I started viewing Israel as a complex society. Israel ceased to become an abstract for me, it started to become a reality as I matured."
Upon finishing his course work in 1974 -- where his two areas of specialization were the Middle East and Latin America -- Abdel-Rahman was appointed director of the Palestine Information Office in New York, and deputy chief representative of the PLO to the United Nations. Within months of taking up his new job, the diplomat was attacked with lead pipes by members of the Jewish Defense League. The attempted assassination landed Abdel-Rahman in intensive care for five days; he still bears scars from that attack.
In 1991, Abdel-Rahman served as senior political advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace talks; during a two-year tenure in Canada, he represented the PLO in multilateral talks on the Middle East refugee problem. Following the signing of the PLO-Israeli Accord in September 1993, he led negotiations with Israeli counterparts in Vienna and Casablanca, concurrently serving as PLO liaison to the governments of Colombia, Venezuela and Chile.
Finally, for the past three years, Abdel-Rahman has been the PLO's chief diplomat in Washington, issuing passports, certifying documents and helping coordinate visits by Arafat and other high-ranking Palestinian officials to the United States. Abdel-Rahman has lectured on the Arab-Israeli conflict at over 300 universities throughout the United States, and has appeared on TV news programs ranging from Nightline to This Week With David Brinkley. He's been invited to speak before the National Press Club, the Brookings Institution, the World Affairs Council and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He's also met with representatives of Jewish organizations, including B'nai B'rith International and the American Jewish Congress. "We agree that the peace process has to be protected and supported, and that any action that would undermine this process is an action against peace," says the diplomat, adding that "80% of American Jews believe [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's policies are not helpful to the peace process."
Yet it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing. Last year, the office was forced to suspend its operations "at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby," says Abdel-Rahman, after Congress failed to pass its annual foreign aid bill. That bill, through the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, provides funds for the Palestinian Authority and lets the PLO run an office in Washington under its own name.
In December, however, President Clinton allowed the Palestinians to formally reopen the office and its nine-member staff, saying that the PLO's presence in Washington was in the national interest of the United States. He took the controversial step by waiving part of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, in which Congress branded the PLO a terrorist organization and severely limited the ability of U.S. officials to have contacts with it.
For years, most Americans -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- equated the PLO with terrorism. That's not surprising, given the group's role in dozens of high-profile terrorist attacks including the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 to Athens in 1985 and repeated suicide bombings within Israel itself over the years. Many Jews still feel revulsion at the mere mention of the PLO; that's why officials of the U.S. Holocaust Museum refused to invite Arafat for a VIP tour of the museum during his recent visit to Washington.
Yet despite the PLO's traditional rhetoric about a jihad, or holy war, against Israel, Abdel-Rahman claims "we are not talking anymore about expelling Jews" from Palestine.
"Israel as a nation is oppressing the Palestinians," he says."That does not mean Israel as a nation has to disappear in order for the Palestinian nation to be reconstituted."
The diplomat denies a frequent Israeli complaint -- that PLO leaders talk publicly to Western leaders about peace with the Jews, while privately telling their Arab audiences that the peace process is just a temporary if unpleasant step along the road to occupation of all of Palestine. He's also impatient with accusations that the PLO's famous charter calls on Palestinians to crush the Jewish state.
"Forget the covenant," he says. "It never calls for Israel's destruction. It says the establishment of Israel is null and void. There's a difference. Israelis interpret our call for a secular democratic state as the destruction of Israel." But when asked why the PLO doesn't just amend its charter to erase any ambiguities, Abdel-Rahman grows angry. "This is a Palestinian process. They don't have a basic law [about us]. The Israeli government has no right to dictate to us what we should include in our new charter."
Pressed about repeated suicide bombings against Israelis for which Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups have claimed responsibility, Abdel-Rahman had this to say: "We condemned those acts of terrorism, we are opposed to terrorism, we are fighting terrorism, but we do not want acts of terrorism to be a pretext for Israel to continue its occupation of Palestinian lands. I have no doubt in my mind that the Israeli government has done and continues to act and behave in a way that destroys the trust of people in the peace process, and that Israeli policies [regarding the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank] are undermining the confidence that was built during the Labor government."
Noting that "people do not change overnight," Abdel-Rahman says Palestinians still harbor angry feelings towards Israel -- and that 90% of his countrymen feel betrayed by Netanyahu and what they see as the near-complete collapse of the peace process since his election. If the process isn't put back on track soon, Abdel-Rahman fears the region could degenerate once more into a cycle of violence and possibly war.
"There has to be a serious and strong belief in the need for peace," says the diplomat. "Israel must start viewing the Palestinians not as their enemies, but as their partners. We opted for historic reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, based on the principle of sharing the land of Palestine between the two peoples. We believe our destinies are intertwined. It's the opportunity of the 21st century."