Hanan Ashrawi : ‘I told Arafat: Israel will promise you an inch and not give you a millimeter’

Meron Rapoport

+ 972 Magazine  /  September 13, 2023

Reflecting on the Oslo Accords 30 years later, veteran politician Hanan Ashrawi recounts her arguments with PLO leaders during the negotiations, and explains why Israel’s political crisis is opening cracks in the occupation.

When the image of Hanan Ashrawi appeared on my computer screen during our Zoom call two weeks ago, I felt as if I was being thrown back in time. The Israeli and international public first got to know her at the Madrid Conference of October 1991, one of the key summits that led to the so-called peace process. There, Ashrawi, as the spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, and with her linguistic skills and television appearances, overshadowed a young Israeli media star named Benjamin Netanyahu, the newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister at the time. Since then, she has been a prominent guest in media studios across the globe, along with Palestinian and Arab ones.

But official negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ceased almost a decade ago, with the failure of the mediation initiative of then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. More than that, the Israeli media became uninterested in “what the Palestinians think.” After all, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had taught the Israelis that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace,” so why should we even listen to them? The only question Israelis are asking of the Palestinians today is whether they are “fighting terrorism” — that is, helping Israel exercise its rule between the river and the sea.

Still, Ashrawi has not gone anywhere, and she remains sharp, focused, and rich in details. It has been 30 years since she was shocked to discover — along with other members of a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation conducting what they believed were formal negotiations with Israel in Washington — that other secret talks were being held in Oslo between Israel and the PLO. From the first moment, Ashrawi did not hide her criticism of the Oslo process, especially regarding the “mutual recognition” letter, in which the PLO recognized the State of Israel while Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people — but not the right of the Palestinians to statehood. “When I saw the letter, I was furious,” she told me.

Yet despite her criticism of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat (Abu ‘Ammar) and later his successor Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Ashrawi was an integral part of the Palestinian leadership and followed the negotiations closely. She served for a short time as the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Higher Education, was twice elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, and served on the PLO’s Executive Committee, the only woman among 15 members.

In 2020, Ashrawi resigned from her position in the PLO, in protest of the PA’s decision to renew security coordination with Israel after temporarily suspending it in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” Recently, she was appointed to head the board of trustees of Birzeit University, returning full circle to the institution where she lectured in English literature and served as dean of the Faculty of Arts.

In her elegant and measured tone, Ashrawi looks back with anger. Anger at the Americans and Europeans who broke all their promises to the Palestinians. Anger at the Israelis who used Oslo as an instrument to perfect the occupation and distance the Palestinians from independence. And anger — or perhaps more accurately, pain — that the Palestinian leaders in exile who signed Oslo did not realize in real time that Israel was misleading them. “They didn’t know the Israelis,” she says, “They didn’t know, from direct experience, how the occupation works.”

And yet, despite all the disappointments, Ashrawi has not lost her optimism — both because Palestinians are not giving up, and because of what is happening inside Israel these days. While she is aware that only a small minority within Israel’s anti-government protests are talking about the occupation, she believes that the alarming scenes from the settler pogroms in the West Bank town of Huwara, to the police brutality against protesters in Tel Aviv these past months, will have an impact. “Once you start removing the lid, it’s like popcorn — everything pops out,” she said.

The interview below has been shortened and edited for clarity.

I know you were critical of the Oslo process from the beginning, and yet, what do you think the Palestinians achieved through Oslo ?

I can only repeat what was said by the leadership back then, which is that the Oslo process and the agreements signed after the Declaration of Principles brought the PLO leadership back home. For them it was a major consideration, a dream that came true; without a signed agreement, they had no other way to return.

But if you look at everything else in context, you see that the price was enormous. Was it worth it? Was it worth our leadership to come from outside in order to be at the mercy of the occupation?

Was this your concern from the beginning — co-optation under Israeli rule ?

Yes. I told Yasser Arafat that this agreement does not give him the basis for sovereignty or genuine access to the right to self-determination, that this is a functional administrative agreement. [I told him] keep the PLO outside, delegate people under the occupation to work. He was furious: “What, do you want an alternative leadership? Do you want the PLO not to return? That’s the whole point.” I said the goal is for you to return freely, as a sovereign leadership.

One hates to be a Cassandra, but unfortunately, I was 100 percent right. [The PLO] had a strong standing and significance, it had loyalty and love from the people, and I didn’t want to see it diminished.

Did the people who decided to take the PLO in this direction — Arafat, Abu Mazen, and others — really believe that it was possible to get the Israelis to end the occupation ?

I think at the beginning Arafat thought yes, that this was the way to independence, to statehood, to ending the occupation, to Jerusalem as the capital. He was quite excited about the process, and I think the way it was presented to him led him to believe so. I don’t think he sat down and went through [the agreement] word by word, page by page, line by line. Those who drafted and signed the agreement certainly were not aware of the nature of the occupation or even of the political system in Israel.

Perhaps you, as someone who lived under the occupation, and the friends who were with you on the delegations to Madrid and Washington, were more acquainted with Israel and therefore doubted it more ?

Yes, of course. In my speech in Madrid [the speech she wrote for the Palestinian leader and delegation head Haidar Abdel-Shafi], I told the Israelis: ‘We have seen you at your worst and best moments. And the occupier has nothing to hide from the occupied.’ We had seen the underbelly of the occupation. We had seen how solidarity and joint struggle could be, and we saw how destruction, violence, oppression, and racism can be. We had to know because we had to survive, insist, resist.

Is this what formed the basis of your different perception from [the PLO leaders] who were in Tunis or before in Beirut ?

There was a difference in perspective, because what you see depends on where you stand and how much exposure you’ve had. The Israelis were willing to give us all the functions of the Civil Administration [the branch of the Israeli army that governs the occupied territories] way back in the 1980s, and we refused; we said we are not collaborators. I remember telling the military governor at the time that we are quite capable of running our lives, but we will not work under you.

We [in the territories] knew it, but [the leadership in Tunis] didn’t. They thought it was a process — that they would go from temporary self-administration to freedom, sovereignty, statehood, etc. Abu ‘Ammar thought: ‘We are smart enough; give me one inch and I will turn it into a meter.’ I told him, ‘You don’t know the Israelis. They will promise you an inch and not give you a millimeter.’

In a sense, Arafat and the leadership were naïve, or is that too harsh ?

Too harsh. I think they thought they knew more than they did. There was also a matter of self-preservation. The PLO was facing destruction: exile, attacks, bankruptcy, assassinations, and internal rivalries. There was a combination of factors that led Abu ‘Ammar to accept the letter of mutual recognition. This was one of the documents I had not seen. When I saw the letter, I was furious.

What in the letter made you furious ?

It gave [the Israelis] the most we can give. It recognized Israel’s right to exist within safe and secure boundaries, in exchange for what? In recognition of the PLO as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. What? I told [Arafat], the PLO is an organization we set up — we love it, are loyal to it, will serve it, protect it, people were shot and killed defending it. But it is not the objective. The objective is self-determination. He told me: ‘The PLO is the address.’

Did you think then that you could get more from the Israelis ?

Yes. We negotiated with the Israelis for a long time. We knew how difficult they are, what their agenda is, and that what is not said is more important than what is said. I’m a professor of the English language; I know the significance of words, and everything that was in the Declaration of Principles was an affront to the basic requirements of negotiations. There were very serious flaws in the agreement, and I said we should change it, but they said it was impossible, that we had already initiated it.

You said you lived under occupation and knew the Israelis better. After 30 years, is this what you expected from the Israelis, or is it worse than you thought ?

Much worse. I knew that what [the Israelis] wanted was to reorganize the occupation in ways that would not limit their powers, but would relieve them of the responsibilities of an occupier while finding an alternative system. In the preliminary talks, when we discussed ‘disengagement,’ [I realized] the Israelis want to separate, because the occupation is corrupting. It is bad for us [Palestinians], but it is bad for Israel as well.

But gradually it became clear that they were not talking about a Palestinian state and sovereignty. They wanted to maintain control over the land. When we started the negotiations, I asked for control over the land and population registers. To this day, the Palestinians do not have them.

I wasn’t naïve to think they were going to withdraw. Maybe I was naïve because I thought that when the Americans signed the letter of assurances, they meant it, or when the Europeans promised we’ll have a state, they meant it. I thought if we negotiate on every single detail on the core issues, and we reach an agreement, then the mindset will change. But I didn’t think it would be easy.

Was the Israeli left the main disappointment for you on the Israeli side ?

Yes, extremely so. Not all of the left. The activists who demonstrated with us — who we had a common vision with, who were beaten together [with us], sometimes even arrested with us — gradually diminished in number. When we moved from activism to a political agenda, they became more and more hesitant. The right scared them to the point where we saw people like [Ehud] Barak or [Shimon] Peres doing the Likud’s dirty work.

Did you believe that the day would come when the Israeli right would actually embrace Oslo, and support Areas A, B, and C ?

[Areas] A, B, and C were an invention that came after the signing of the agreement, and they upset me even more than the Declaration of Principles. I felt it was ridiculous and absurd. You make the people under occupation responsible for the security of the occupier? Really? Anyone with any sense would not accept that at all … Instead of devolution of the occupation and evolution of a state, we got the opposite: evolution of the occupation and devolution of a state.

As soon as areas A, B and C were proposed, were you worried we would come to that ?

When we started with the Gaza and Jericho agreement [handing the two West Bank cities to PA control], I wrote to Abu ‘Ammar why he shouldn’t take such an approach: don’t fragment the territory, don’t say ‘Gaza and Jericho,’ but the whole West Bank and Gaza. Don’t enter a phased approach, don’t separate the people from the land, and don’t treat different parts of the land differently, because what is interim becomes permanent.

Even in Area A, [the Israelis] enter whenever they want, blow up doors, and arrest and kill people. We are a people who have lived in this land for centuries with its ancient names, and one day we wake up and find ourselves living in the letters of the alphabet? I don’t want to live in the alphabet, I want to live in Palestine.

I can tell you about all the problems, but there was no accountability, no arbitration, no monitoring and verification; Israel could do what it wanted. The Americans and Europeans never held Israel to account.

Did you ask the Americans and Europeans ?

Oh, yes. I was in charge of negotiations with the Americans for quite a while and I asked why they didn’t implement what they wrote in their assurances letter [sent by the U.S. before the Madrid summit]. You [the U.S.] said that you don’t recognize the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem, and you don’t accept settlements. They said: ‘This is our position, but it has nothing to do with the negotiations.’ In other words, we will believe what we want, but we will support Israel’s impunity.

One of the criticisms, from both sides, was that the Oslo process was done top-down — that neither the Israeli or Palestinian societies were really involved. How do you see that ?

There was transparency. When we came back [from Madrid], we used to hold town meetings. We would meet people in gardens, they would come to my house, and they were free to ask us questions. When we went to Madrid, we had 40 percent support. When we came back, we had about 87 percent support in the West Bank and Gaza, because we went to defend our people and our rights — that’s how they saw us.

In Israel, I don’t know if the people who signed the agreement shared it with the public. To me, the real problem was negotiations in the dark, back channels … We were happy to go out in the open and discuss. I remember the Israelis telling us, ‘We won’t get anywhere if you talk to people this way.’

And did Arafat and the Palestinian leadership criticize you for doing that ?

No, but I think most of them wanted secrecy. I even remember Abu Mazen telling me at one moment, ‘Why don’t you go talk to the Israelis and see what you can do.’ He always believed in back channels. [But] it should be in the open because you are dealing with the lives of the people.

Your criticism of Oslo has been proven correct, and the reality is worse than you thought. But Oslo exists, the Palestinian Authority exists, and it seems almost impossible to dismantle it. So, in this situation, what can the Palestinians do to liberate themselves ?

The whole Oslo process is no longer there. It is more honored by the breach than the compliance. Israel picks and chooses what it likes from Oslo … Oslo was a very convenient tool for the Israelis to take more land, get more time, create more realities. Now they hold the Palestinians accountable for the safety of the army. The army enters Areas A and B, while they do not allow the Palestinian security forces to defend the Palestinians.

This is a dilemma that many Palestinians are grappling with. Do we want to preserve this semblance of self-government, building institutions, or running our own lives? Is this the kind of life we ​​want? Everything we do is tainted by the occupation. It’s not Oslo in itself, it’s the fact that the occupation has evolved with a pattern of behavior leading to this horrible situation of total vulnerability on the one hand, and ruthlessness and violence on the other.

I’ll rephrase: to what extent does Oslo, and the agreements related to it, paralyze the Palestinian struggle ?

It ties our hands in many ways. It tries to normalize a situation that is not normal. Any people under occupation, their first priority, their primary duty, is to resist the occupation — not to be branded a terrorist, not to be asked to lie down and die quietly and surrender.

The whole logic behind Oslo is seen as bizarre, but how do you dismantle it? If Israel has decided that no agreement binds it, why should we be bound by any agreement? This is the process of disengagement that should take place. Then maybe we can have a different system, do things differently in a way that empowers the Palestinian people.

Do you see what is happening now in Jenin and Nablus [with the rise of youth-led, non-partisan militant groups] as a way to empower the Palestinians ?

It’s a new dynamic. When people feel vulnerable and helpless, and their leadership doesn’t protect them, then they have to take up arms and defend themselves. They are gaining support, people are admiring them. People don’t think of them as terrorists; in the eyes of the Palestinian people, they are resistance fighters defending the camps, the cities, the villages.

The younger generation has a different attitude. Many of them wanted to be part of the nation-building process. We saw the change that happened when they announced the elections decree [set for April 2021]: we had 36 electoral lists, people yearned to build a democratic system even under occupation. And when it was canceled, there was a tremendous sense of letdown. The younger generation feels that they are not involved in shaping their lives and their future. They feel that they are paying a price for an agreement that has nothing to do with them. They feel trapped.

Does the political goal also change? Does this new generation no longer want the two-state solution, and wants first of all democracy, equal rights and all ?

This is one approach, because you also have to expose the undemocratic, autocratic, fascist Israeli system that controls our lives. But we also recognize that our leadership is not doing us justice, and we need reforms, without equating the leadership with the occupation. Self-inflicted wounds are more painful than those inflicted by others.

The educated, who were supposed to be the backbone of the rising political elite, are now talking about rights and freedom. In my view, we cannot frame the discussion as one state or  two states because neither of them is available. The one state, which is taking shape on the ground, is Greater Israel being imposed on all of historical Palestine — an oppressive apartheid state, where the Palestinians have no rights, and the settlers are becoming the instrument of choice for a government that is extremely racist.

This is how you explain why one state is not on the table. But why is the two-state solution not on the table ?

All you need to do is look around you. Look at all the apartheid roads, the settlements, and the lands they control. Where are you going to have Palestinian state? Even in E1, they build, all the hills are taken, the water is taken. Neither [solution] is possible now. We have a right to self-determination … But I do not want sovereignty over five percent or 15 percent of historical Palestine. This is not a state, it is not even a mini-state; this is a caricature of a state.

What we need is to maintain our ability to stay, our resilience, and our relationship with the rest of the world. There is a rising and growing solidarity movement. There are people within Israel who are speaking out and challenging the ethos within Israel. The chicken has come home to roost; the left woke up and saw that what it did to the Palestinians is happening to [Israelis] in many ways. You cannot have a selective democracy.

Are you following the demonstrations in Israel, and do you see any cracks that the Palestinians could exploit ?

Yes, of course. These are not just cracks. There were elections in which nobody talked about the occupation; they talked about the housing shortage and cottage cheese, and tried to avoid the elephant in the room. And they could get away with it for a while. But now they can’t.

Do you think people in Israel see a connection ?

Not all of them. You look at thousands of Israeli flags, but you see not only a Palestinian flag but also a sign that speaks of the occupation, of the oppression of other people. It is still a minority, but it is becoming more vocal … You cannot claim an isolated, encapsulated democracy when what you are doing is entirely undemocratic, entirely oppressive, entirely illegal.

This small group is the one that will make a difference, because it will not be swept away by the majority, who think that all they need is to keep the Supreme Court. We know that the Court ruled against us, we know Israel’s democracy was entirely undemocratic when it came to us.

As long as everything was inside a capsule, nice and comfortable, you could go to your nightclubs and the beach. But as soon as you start removing the lid, it’s like popcorn — everything pops out. You can’t put back the lid and unsee what you have seen, or excuse things that are inexcusable.

It’s not only Huwara: it’s the daily, deliberate brutality. You see the settlers burning people’s crops, throwing fire bombs into houses, bringing in their herds to take over land, and building more and more outposts. The demonstrations haven’t stopped it, [but] the demonstrations are gradually pointing it out and starting to gain momentum. Will it continue and gain enough momentum to challenge what’s happening here? That’s the real question.

I think that this [far-right] government is suicidal in many ways for Israel. The danger is not from Hezbollah or Hamas. The real threat are the Israeli policies that have generated these eternal rifts that are irreconcilable. If it wants to continue like that with Netanyahu, then that is a problem that is going to implode within Israel.

So, in a way you’re still optimistic ?

I’m optimistic because the Palestinians have neither forgotten, nor have they self-exiled, nor have they surrendered. We weren’t defeated. What drives the Israeli right wing crazy is that the Palestinians persist … That to me is a source of hope.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call