Behind the Headlines: Former Palestinian Outlaw Emerges As Bona Fide Negotiator and Leader

For a moment, Faisal Husseini’s usual poker face broke into a smile.

“The only difference between now and the past is that when I now enter the negotiations hall, the Israelis will not walk out,” the Palestinian leader said.

Husseini was referring to Israel’s quiet agreement to accept him as a participating member of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks, despite the fact that he is a resident of eastern Jerusalem.

The previous Likud-led government would not talk to any residents of Jerusalem — at least not officially — for fear that it might be seen as a sign that Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem was negotiable.

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin says accepting Husseini as a negotiator does not mean Israel’s position has changed in the least.

And Husseini explained that although he will now be directly involved in the face-to-face negotiations with Israel, Haidar Abdel-Shafi will remain the titular head of the negotiating team.

“There is no real change,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview. “I am still the head of the Palestinian delegation, and Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi is the head of the negotiating team.”

Israel and the United States had previously referred to Husseini as “chief adviser” to the Palestinian delegation, although within the Palestinian camp, it was apparent that his position was in fact more important. Now Husseini’s status is official.

Asked if the Israeli turnabout has any significance, Husseini replied, “That, of course, you will have to ask the Israelis.”

At one point, Israeli officials hinted that Husseini would have to register as a resident of the West Bank instead of Jerusalem. But Husseini pointed out that he has “quite a number of addresses in the West Bank, as well as Jerusalem.”

SCION OF OLD JERUSALEM FAMILY

Husseini, 53, the scion of an old and venerable Jerusalem family, has emerged as a key Palestinian leader on the eve of the ninth round of talks, which were to open Tuesday in Washington.

Husseini has strengthened his position with the Israelis, the Americans and, although he will not admit it openly, with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, whom he refers to as “president of Palestine.”

Asked about Arafat’s role in the peace process, Husseini responded, “We have a pyramid-shaped structure. Everyone knows who heads it.”

In the past few years, Husseini has emerged from being a soldier in the political battlefield to commander of the front. Now, even Arafat must take into account the local leadership, headed by Husseini, when he decides on his political moves.

Husseini’s headquarters are located in Orient House, a stylish mansion in eastern Jerusalem owned in the past by the Husseini family and now run as a well-guarded diplomatic mission.

A huge electric iron gate separates the compound from the street, and guards carrying security badges and walkie-talkies patrol the entrance and roofs of the smaller buildings surrounding Orient House.

Visitors must identify themselves and their bags must be searched before being let in. Israelis who come armed with a pistol — a frequent sight nowadays — must deposit the weapons in the hands of the Palestinian guard.

This past weekend, Orient House was humming with activity. Palestinian figures walked in and out of the building for last-minute consultations with Husseini before he left for Washington.

The heavy iron gate opened every few minutes to allow in cars with diplomatic license plates, and officials from the U.S. Consulate here walked in and out of the building. The Americans were putting the final touches on their negotiations with the Palestinians to make sure that Husseini and his delegation were indeed coming to Washington.

Despite threats from the Palestinian delegation during the past few weeks that they would not return to the peace talks unless the Islamic fundamentalists deported by Israel last December were returned and the ongoing closure on the territories was lifted, Husseini wanted to go.

Perhaps more than anyone else around him in the Palestinian camp, Husseini is the realist. He knows that if there are no talks, Palestinians are bound to be stuck with Israeli administration of the territories for many years to come.

The Americans have appreciated Husseini’s pragmatism for quite some time. They have tried to convince the Israelis that if they want an alternative to Arafat and the PLO, they must allow an alternative leadership in the territories to develop.

But instead, the previous Likud government placed Husseini under administrative arrest three times and restricted his freedom of movement for five years. These measures ironically helped him emerge from a gray minor political operator into a major political figure.

Eventually, Husseini was accepted worldwide as a true representative of the local Palestinian population.

This week, Husseini was the subject of speculation that he would become head of a local Palestinian police force that would operate even before the establishment of a Palestinian self-rule.

The idea for the police force was mentioned by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who said he would back Husseini to head such a force.

Husseini rejected the notion, saying he sees no room for a police force that would operate under the control of the Israeli army.

But the media reports nevertheless show that the talks have moved from the realm of petty bargaining into real business.

Knesset member Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party, and former Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir warned this week against a Palestinian police force.

Netanyahu said the proposal is a deviation from the Camp David accords, with the intention of preparing public opinion for “an armed Palestinian state in the heart of Eretz Yisrael.”

But regardless of developments in the Washington talks and Husseini’s possible role in a Palestinian police force, a major change has already occurred.

The man who under the previous government was thrown in jail as an outlaw is now considered by Israeli policy-makers to be qualified to take charge of law and order.

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