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Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most prominent voices in Palestinian politics, founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in 1998 and has served as secretary-general of that organization since then. In 1996, Ashrawi was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Jerusalem District. She spoke with Stanley Sheinbaum for Global Viewpoint on Aug. 27.

QUESTION: The United States is heavily pressuring Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to stop this new wave of terrorism, which he seems unable to do. He has had to go to Yasser Arafat for help. Doesn't this show it was a mistake for the United States to sideline Arafat if it wants the "road map" to lead somewhere?

HANAN ASHRAWI: The Americans did themselves a great disfavor by ostracizing Arafat because they boosted his support among the Palestinians. People rallied around him since the United States and Israelis attacked him. By trying to isolate Arafat, the Americans also mistakenly distanced themselves from a source of legitimate power and decision-making in Palestine. So now they have to get to Arafat through others indirectly, whereas before they could influence him directly.

To address any serious issue it is important that they talk to Arafat. There is no reason for this boycott of him. It is childish, immature and manipulative. If the United States is serious about peace, there are Palestinian realities that they have to deal with, not realities manufactured in somebody's mind.

Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, cannot do anything on his own without the cooperation of Arafat, just as he needs Fatah and the legislative council. Everybody has been trying to help Mahmoud Abbas, but he also has to help himself and understand he gains his legitimacy from the people and not just from the Americans or the Israelis.

There is such a thing as being killed by kindness, and this is what the United States is doing to Mahmoud Abbas. It needs to understand the sensitivities and the balances and the intricate relationships within Palestinian domestic politics.

Q: Is there enough cooperation between Arafat and Abbas?

ASHRAWI: There is a minimum level of cooperation: It is very difficult for Arafat to depart and to let go. And it is very difficult for Mahmoud Abbas to maintain a sense of legitimacy and a power base on his own. He doesn't have it. They need each other. As I told him, if you fail, you will be blamed. But your failure will be everybody's. If he doesn't deliver to the Palestinians he will certainly lose a great deal.

Q: Doesn't anyone in Washington understand this dynamic of domestic Palestinian politics?

ASHRAWI: The State Department understands, and I have tried to explain this to National Security Advisor Condi Rice because she is beginning to understand that meddling in Palestinian politics could backfire. They have to understand that when they attack Arafat, he gets more support; when they embrace Mahmoud Abbas, he gets less support.

The problem is that, within the White House and Pentagon, people don't have any connections with Palestinians. They still don't know the full Palestinian narrative and the Arab point of view that makes our politics tick. They tend to take simplistic decisions on the basis of the Israeli version to which they are exposed daily.

Q: Do you see Arafat breaking out of his shackles?

ASHRAWI: That is very hard. I think of him as being held hostage by the Israelis, and it is very cruel. He cannot break away on his own. The Israelis have to lift the siege; the Americans have to intervene. As I said, playing the game by the Israeli rules weakens the American hand.

Q: Do you fear a civil war among Palestinians?

ASHRAWI: Yes, I do. There is an awareness among Palestinians that civil war is fatal for everybody, but at the same time being aware of it does not mean being able to avert it. The only way to do that is to remove the pressures that are leading the Palestinians to a civil war.

The No. 1 pressure point is the Israeli assassinations. Then the siege, the destruction, the abductions and the prisoners. And, of course, there is pressure on Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism -- even though Israel has been an occupying power all these years and couldn't stop the violence. Calling on the Palestinian Authority to stop what Israel couldn't is setting them up for a fall.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/28/03)