Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 36, 81

In Memoriam

Zehdi Terzi (1924-2006)

By Ian Williams

As Palestine’s deputy foreign minister, Zehdi Terzi consulted with Palestinian Ambassador to South Africa Salman al-Herfi at the April 27, 2002 opening of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) ministerial meeting in Durban, South Africa (AFP Photo/Rajesh Jantilal).

THE many journalists and diplomats who consulted over the years with the PLO’s first representative to the United Nations remember Zehdi Terzi fondly. Indeed, it would be difficult to demonize as a fundamentalist terrorist someone whom the Patriarch of Jerusalem had dubbed a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, or whom his daughter Karimah remembers as a feminist who admonished her, “BSc, MSc, PhD—and only then Mrs.” Nonetheless, for 16 straight years, if you judged him by the New York tabloids and the Congressional Register, Ambassador Terzi was America’s most unwanted.

An almost archetypal Palestinian figure, Terzi was born in an ancient Greek Orthodox family in Jerusalem under the British Mandate, on Feb. 20, 1924. He had hoped to end his days in the city, but, as he wistfully pointed out to a radio interviewer in 1988, “I can’t go back home.” Friendly, courteous and dignified, he was firm in his nationalist principles. When, after long and discreet negotiations, Israel finally offered to let him return to join his brothers and sisters in East Jerusalem, he could not bring himself to apply to those he considered illegal occupiers for a visa—so he died, as he had lived for three decades—in exile—on March 1, 2006 in Amman, where he was undergoing medical treatment.

Under the British Mandate Terzi had studied at Terra Sancta College and graduated from law school in 1948, the year of the partition of Jerusalem and Palestine. In Beirut in late 1959 he met Widad Awad, a Chilean descendant of an earlier generation of Arab refugees, in her case from the Ottomans. They married within months, on his birthday in 1960. She died in his arms, in New York, in 1987.

An early associate of Yasser Arafat, Terzi began his diplomatic career within months of the foundation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, becoming the PLO’s emissary to Brazil. He was part of the delegation that in November 1974 accompanied Arafat to the United Nations in New York and secured recognition there, of sorts, for the PLO.

The General Assembly affirmed the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and independence, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property, and recognized the PLO as their representative. The resolution gave the PLO almost all the attributes of statehood except a vote.

When Terzi arrived as the first Palestinian “permanent observer” to the U.N. in 1975, he soon was reminded that Washington had vigorously opposed the resolution. For the U.S. and Israel, the PLO was a terrorist organization. Although the mission was covered by the U.N. Headquarters agreement, grandstanding American politicians kept trying to close it down.

The pressure was continuous throughout Terzi’s time at the UN. In 1986, for example, the State Department refused him permission to travel to Harvard Law School to debate with Prof. Alan Dershowitz, provoking a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Perhaps the strangest of the court battles that put Terzi in the headlines was in 1982, when a New York judge overturned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Sparks’ bequest of $30,000 to the PLO. That Sparks himself was Jewish added an extra piquancy to the case.

The most notorious collateral damage of these cases, however, was a former congressman who had, in his own words, “a 100 percent voting record in support of Israel.” Andrew Young, the former civil rights leader, congressman and then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., met Terzi “accidentally on purpose” at a lunch at the Kuwaiti ambassador’s residence in 1979. Young claims that the State Department and the Israeli Foreign Ministry both knew in advance about the meeting, but once it was leaked President Jimmy Carter fired Young under ferocious pressure from the American pro-Israel lobby. It was not Carter’s finest hour.

The New York Post headline had been “Jews Demand Firing Young,” and the incident did much to damage relations between the black and Jewish communities. It has since been reported that Mossad had actually wired the Kuwaiti ambassador’s official residence and recorded the conversations. The Palestinian case was too compelling to allow it to reach the ears of the American public.

Toward the end of Terzi’s U.N. career, as the intifada raged on, he helped formulate the strategy that may annoy Israel even more: the use of U.N. resolutions and international law to establish Palestinian rights. It was a strategy he encouraged when he left the New York Mission in the hands of his deputy, current Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser el-Kidwa, to become special adviser on international and U.N. affairs to Arafat in Tunis in 1991. There he was to spend the remainder of his days, until going to Jordan for (unsuccessful) medical treatment.

Ambassador Terzi was brought back to the U.S. to be buried with his wife in New Jersey—a long way from Jerusalem, where he had left the other half of his heart so many decades before. A memorial service was held for him on Sunday, March 19 at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. In keeping with his typically Palestinian belief in the power of education, his daughter Karimah and son Kamel (who spell their father’s name as below) suggest donations in his memory to Birzeit University, to establish the Zuhdi Labib Tarazi Memorial Scholarship. Contributions are tax-deductible if checks are made out to “Birzeit University Fund” (ZLT M S) and mailed to:

Mr. K. Fred Ajluni, J.D.
Chairman, Birzeit University Fund
K&S Mall
1800 West 14 Mile Road, Suite C
Royal Oak, MI 48073

The tax number for the Birzeit University Fund is EIN/38-2870089. 

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.

Additional information