WRMEA, April/May 1997, pgs. 103-104

Book Reviews

This Side of Peace: A Personal Account

Reviewed by Pat McDonnell Twair

(Editor’s note: Because the final paragraphs were inadvertently omitted in the March 1997 issue, we are reprinting this review in its entirety.)

During a 1995 visit to Los Angeles, Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, she chose to write This Side of Peace in order to record a crucial chapter in Palestinian history as she personally experienced it. Therefore, she admonished, this book is not an autobiography; her story is by no means over yet.

Nonetheless, it seems Betrayal might have been a more appropriate title for this memoir that documents how the United States repeatedly lied to the Palestinian peace negotiating team, which later also was misled by Yasser Arafat, whose mediators were secretly drawing up an agreement with Israel in Oslo, Norway.

As a statesman, Ashrawi’s credentials are impeccable. As an academician, she is brilliant and articulate. As a reporter, her facts are unimpeachable. As a writer, her prose at times is poetic.

Ashrawi is sparing on details of her youth and marriage, but generous on the events in which she played an historic role in the founding of the forthcoming state of Palestine. We learn she was born into a Christian Palestinian family of privilege and was separated from her family as a teenager when the June 1967 war precluded her returning during vacations from the American University of Beirut to Israeli-occupied Ramallah. Ashrawi skips over her post-graduate years at the University of Virginiawe’re not even told the topic of her dissertation in English medieval and renaissance literaturebut we do learn about her abiding love for the rocky landscape of Palestine and the beautiful wild flowers she likens to the spirit of her countrymen:

Had it been mellow, with rolling green plains and gently rippling rivers, with watered lawns and spring showers, would we have been gentler, milder creatures, more willing to compromise and less heroic in our stance? Would we have fewer demons and gods fighting for our souls? One thing I knew: our land would have produced fewer poets and prophets but a more contented race untortured by the mere fact of its existence.

This former dean of Birzeit University’s English Department does not lack a sense of humor. One of the incidents that made this reviewer laugh out loud was Ashrawi’s recollection of a motorcade to Isma'iliyya, Egypt. En route to the historic Madrid conference, Ashrawi recalls how she and fellow Palestinian delegates Faisal Husseini and Haidar Abdel Shafi were rerouted from Amman, Jordan, to Cairo for a preliminary meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. From the Egyptian capital, the three Palestinians were dispatched in separate limousines to confer with Mubarak in Ismailiya. Their mad motorcade, she wrote, hurtled through traffic with sirens blaring, lights flashing and guards leaning out car windows brandishing automatic weapons.

When the car behind her transporting Haidar Abdel Shafi stopped, Ashrawi was certain the elder statesman had suffered a heart attack. Instead, he emerged angrily from the vehicle and indignantly exclaimed: “They’re going to kill us all.” Abdel Shafi then joined Ashrawi in her car and the two closed their eyes and held onto arm rests for the remainder of the trip. Later, she said, whenever the three negotiators found themselves in a challenging or desperate position, they reminded themselves that they had survived the mad motorcade to Ismailiya.

Ashrawi never let herself be intimidated. When the representative of the only super power left in the game of nations, Secretary of State James Baker, told her: “These are the conditions...the souq is over; the bazaar is closedfinished,” Ashrawi would not be patronized. “Here you go again using racist language,” she retorted. “We are not haggling over the price of merchandise: we are fighting for our lives and for the future of the whole region.”

At Madrid, when the U.S. State Department didn’t allow Ashrawi’s delegation into the Palace of Nations, she called Palestinian press conferences in a park. The briefings were mobbed by reporters—so much so that when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived at the airport, they were chagrined to learn most of the press was covering the daily Palestinian media session.

Credit can go, too, to Ashrawi for her role authoring the Palestinian speech at Madrid. Drafts were edited, cut and pasted, and she went without sleep for days. But the result, read by Palestinian delegation leader Abdul Shafi, was an eloquent expression of the pain and pride of the Palestinian people:

We come to you from a tortured land and a proud, though captive people, having been asked to negotiate with our occupiers, but leaving behind the children of the intifada, and a people under occupation and under curfew who enjoined us not to surrender or forget. As we speak, thousands of our brothers and sisters are languishing in Israeli prisons and detention camps, most detained without evidence, charge, or trial, many cruelly mistreated and tortured in interrogation, guilty only of seeking freedom or daring to defy the occupation. We speak in their name and we say: Set them free...

The U.S. betrayal came in many ways and rarely was it camouflaged. In Washington, the Palestinians knew all the American negotiators were pro-Israel. The only question was whether they were pro-Likud or pro-Labor. The American team even went so far as to allow the Israeli legal system to override U.N. Security Council resolutions and distort international law when it came to the question of several hundred Palestinian deportees shivering in a Lebanese no-man’s-land.

Repeatedly, when the Palestinian team submitted its documents to the American delegation, the U.S. responded with “adopted Israeli priorities, diction and attitudes” and regressed to the point of presenting Israeli positions. She describes the realities of the frustrating“hands-off” policy the U.S. adopted during back-channel direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli government in 1992 and 1993. In effect it was hands off chastising the Israelis but hands on when it came to prodding the Palestinians.

At one point, Ashrawi heard on the radio the voice of an anonymous American “senior administration official” who accused the Palestinians of dragging their feet. She recognized the voice as that of Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Edward Djerijian, an Arabic-speaking Armenian diplomat who professed understanding of and friendship with the Palestinians. Ashrawi sent him a memorandum reminding him of the concrete proposals her team had made.

Betrayal didn’t come only from the American camp. Ashrawi, Husseini and Abdul Shafi were astonished to learn of the secret agreements signed by the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo. Her initial shock only grew as she studied a copy of the document. “It’s clear that the ones who initialed this agreement have not lived under occupation,” she said. “You postponed the settlement issue and Jerusalem without even getting guarantees that Israel would not continue to create facts on the ground that would pre-empt and prejudge the final outcome. And what about human rights?”

This disciplined patriot does not criticize Yasser Arafat, but her feelings of betrayal make the final pages of her book an eye-witness account of a national tragedy.

Although, or perhaps because the author is a proud mother and loving wife, she offers only a few glimpses into her close family circle. But she also is a feminist and this is best demonstrated in her proud description of the women of the intifada:

Imprisoned, tortured, harassed, humiliated, or plain excluded and disenfranchised, our women displayed a sense of pride that went beyond victimization, visible in their eyes and bearing. Even those held captive by tradition could be seen looking up in the middle of kneading dough or washing the laundry with that faraway look of someone listening to an inaudible internal voice of someone hoarding that secret message for a more opportune moment.