Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

What Did the Palestinians Achieve in Madrid?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

What Did the Palestinians Achieve in Madrid?

Article excerpt

What Did the Palestinians Achieve in Madrid?

The Palestinian delegation that went to the peace conference in Madrid initiated an unlearning process for images held by Americans about Palestinians. The images include the Palestinian as a terrorist and as a masked stone thrower. They omitted the Palestinian as a professional, although the rate of Palestinian university graduates equals that of Great Britain. The message conveyed by the new image is that Palestinians are "more like us." Therefore, they possibly deserve what they clearly want, which are the things Americans take for granted: the right to an education, the right to earn a living and the right to live in dignity in their own country.

All this was contained in the speech of Palestinian delegation leader Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi. When the words were pronounced by a medical doctor rather than a politician, they were received as the genuine reflection of the desires of people in the occupied territories. The message behind the intifada was, for the first time, understood.

Dr. Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi, a Christian woman professor at Bir Zeit University, was for English-speaking onlookers the most articulate member of the Palestinian delegation. Single-handedly she destroyed the stereotype of the passive Arab woman. At the same time, she was visible evidence that Christian and Muslim Palestinians have identical interests in "the Palestine question," a fact persistently ignored in the American media. It remains to be seen whether Dr. Ashrawi's brilliant performance will stimulate renewed commitments to a just settlement from both church and women's groups in the US.

In the world of image warfare, the media proclaimed the Palestinians undisputed winners. This is no trifling matter in an American culture that places so much importance on winning. Only a few months back, the conventional wisdom (expressed in this magazine among others) deemed the Palestinians psychologically incapable of helping themselves.

Palestinians, in fact, did not consciously set out to wage a public relations campaign. Image building has little use in Palestinian culture, where leaders know each other's personal histories and find it difficult to submerge their individuality.

Physicians, writers and educators were chosen to put forth the Palestinian case because of the deep respect bordering on veneration that Palestinians have always felt towards education. As a result, not even the choice of a woman as a spokesperson was based on public relations savvy.

Dr. Ashrawi's presence was viewed by Palestinians as a natural recognition of her own role, demonstrated negotiating skills, and the leading role that women have performed throughout the intifada. Even the Islamic hardliners of Hamas had no objections. The Palestinians will not soon forget, however, the favorable public relations and image-making impact from Madrid, and they are bound to take it into consideration in all of their future activities.

Historical Prerequisites

However powerful its imagery, Palestinian participation in the conference could not have taken place without three historical developments: the intifada, the evolution of moderate thinking within the PLO, and shifts in the policy of the United States.

Palestinian thought began to change perceptibly when the struggle shifted from the camps of Lebanon and other centers of the Palestinian diaspora to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. …

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