Who’s on First? Palestinians Fight over Position of U.S. Representative
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Who’s on First? Palestinians Fight over Position of U.S. Representative

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Hanna Siniora thinks he is going to be the next representative of the PLO in Washington.

Just don’t tell that to Hassan Abdel Rahman, who has held the post for more than 10 years.

Siniora, a Palestinian Christian who came to Washington this week to meet with State Department officials and other influentials, says he was appointed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and will replace Rahman on Oct. 1.

The only problem is that nobody has told Rahman or the State Department.

Rahman said last week that “there is no appointment, period” and that he will remain the PLO’s representative in Washington for the foreseeable future.

Asked about Siniora’s assertion that the change would take place in October, Rahman said, “That is seriously not true.”

“I am here in my official capacity as the representative of the PLO until Chairman Arafat decides otherwise,” Rahman told JTA.

The diplomatic spat is the latest embarrassment for the Palestinians in the United States. In April, their mission was evicted from its Washington office for failing to pay rent.

Rahman, a frequent guest on U.S. news shows, has worked mostly via cell phone since then.

“I work at the pleasure of the president,” he said, referring to Arafat. “If he feels I can serve here, fine. If he feels I can serve somewhere else, that is very normal.”

The confusion may hamper the Palestinians’ efforts to improve their image in the United States. The

American and Israeli governments essentially have dismissed Arafat as a terrorist and, last week, members of the Palestinian Cabinet were forced to resign en masse to avoid a no-confidence vote from the Palestinian legislature.

Public opinion polls continue to show that Americans take Israel’s side over the Palestinians. In addition, American Jews are mounting a massive publicity campaign to improve Israel’s image in the United States and shore up American support.

Rather than responding in kind, however, the Palestinians are struggling over who will represent them in Washington.

Within diplomatic circles, Rahman has been perceived as largely inept at getting the Palestinians’ message across.

“He’s not been regarded as the most effective of representatives,” one Bush administration official said.

In recent years the PLO increasingly has utilized Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul general in eastern Jerusalem, to push its interests.

“It tells a lot,” the administration official said of Abington’s growing role. “They feel they needed somebody to act as a go-between, someone to act as interpreter for Rahman.”

State Department officials said they have received no notice of a change in PLO representative. While the position is not ambassadorial level and does not require a formal presentation of credentials to the State Department, a spokesperson said it has not received even a diplomatic notice, which is required.

When Siniora met last week with David Hale, director of the State Department’s office of Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs, he did so not as the PLO representative but as a “significant Palestinian civil leader,” the spokesperson said.

Siniora is the publisher of The Jerusalem Times, an English-language weekly, and head of the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce in Ramallah. The Washington posting would be his first political position.

In Washington for a series of meetings and to find a place to move to last week, Siniora spoke to JTA as if the position were already his.

“The change came from the president himself,” he said.

One of the governmental reforms the Palestinians are implementing, he said, “is to seek a more effective voice in the United States.”

Siniora said he wanted to bring the Palestinian message to the Arab American community and America at large, and believed he could forge a good working relationship with the American Jewish community.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to speak on terms that the American public can understand, to speak of nonviolence,” he said.

For now, though, he must await formal announcement of his position from Ramallah.

Siniora and Rahman met last week in an attempt to hash out who would represent the Palestinians in Washington. Siniora said beforehand he would use the opportunity to convince Rahman “that this issue be best resolved internally.”

But the meeting did not seem to resolve anything. Rahman said afterwards that, if Arafat chose to replace him, Siniora would be a “nominee” for the position.

Rahman would not discuss the effect the squabbling has had on his ability to do his job or the effect it has on public perceptions of the Palestinians.

“It is bizarre, to be honest with you,” he said.

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