Palestinian Is Unlikely Peacemaker
West Bank journalist is challenging family and class traditions to represent his people
RADWAN Abu Ayyash describes himself, self deprecatingly, as an ``extra-ordinary phenomenon,'' a Palestinian born in a refugee camp who has challenged traditions of family and class to become a leading spokesman for his people. And he is a phenomenon that United States Secretary of State James Baker III, who arrived here last night for another round of talks in his diplomatic initiative, is likely to have to deal with a lot if his cherished peace conference gets off the ground.
Abu Ayyash, released two weeks ago from five months' imprisonment without trial, has been widely mentioned as a key figure in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that might result from the current US initiative. His freedom to travel, however, was curbed yesterday when the Israeli authorities issued him a green identification card that forbids him to enter Israel or go abroad for six months.
Abu Ayyash was given the card ``because he has been in prison,'' according to Shmuel Ozenboy, spokesman for the coordinator of the occupied territories. He was granted a one-month permit to work in Jerusalem, however, Mr. Ozenboy said.
Obstructing peace process
Abu Ayyash himself saw the move as a deliberate obstruction to the peace process. ``These people are not serious about anything called peace,'' he said yesterday. ``And if the peace process cannot stop the Israelis restricting my political activities, how can it stop Israel on the big issues?''
Abu Ayyash, head of the Arab Journalists' Association, is unusual among Palestinian political leaders. For a start, he was born in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus, but has nonetheless risen to a political prominence normally reserved for members of more established and socially respected families.
Secondly, he is one of the younger Palestinian leaders, still a child when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed, and he comes from a provincial town rather than the metropolis, Jerusalem, where power has tended to concentrate. (PLO attempts comeback, Page 8.)
All these factors give Abu Ayyash a credibility among the younger poorer Palestinians, who make up the mass of inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, that some of his colleagues - better known to foreign diplomats than to their own people - lack.
But he is the first to admit that he has no mandate from his community to negotiate with the Israelis and that, since elections are forbidden in the occupied territories, he has been elected by no one. It is for that reason, he says, that a way around Israel's refusal to talk to the PLO must be found.
``My people can come to me and say, `Who told you to talk on my behalf? What is the source of your power, where is your mandate?' That's why a delegate needs PLO recognition,'' Abu Ayyash says. ``It is not democratic and it is not correct, but it's the only way. We need a strong decision from up there. People can say, `Who is Radwan Abu Ayyash?,' they can say, `Who is Faisal Husseini?' [who has led Palestinians in talks with Mr. Baker]. But they cannot say, `Who is Arafat?,''' referring to Y asser Arafat, the PLO chief.
In the past, Israel has reportedly been ready to talk to Abu Ayyash, despite its refusal to talk to the PLO, even though he says, ``I do not deny that I am pro-PLO in my views.'' Some diplomatic sleight of hand would have to be used, he says, for the PLO to announce that it approves a Palestinian delegation and for the Israeli government to ignore that announcement.
One of Abu Ayyash's advantages as a negotiating figure is that he has two addresses, living in Ramallah, on the West Bank, but maintaining an office in Arab East Jerusalem. He might thus be regarded as informally representing East Jerusalem, even though Israel refuses to negotiate with an East Jerusalem resident on the grounds that Jerusalem is not occupied territory but an integral part of Israel.
Until now, in order not to concede that point to the Israelis, Palestinians have insisted that an East Jerusalemite be on their delegation. But Abu Ayyash suggests that even if no East Jerusalemite were on the Palestinian delegation, that would by no means imply the Palestinians accepted the Israeli position.
``A delegate from Tulkarm or anywhere else would be representing the Palestinian cause,'' he says. ``It is not geography, anyone on the team will talk about Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is a must to be on the agenda'' of any talks.
But he is adamant on another point that has raised Israeli hackles - a possible role for Western Europe in a peace conference. While Israel wants to minimize such a role, ``we want their full participation,'' Abu Ayyash says.
``Today when the Russians and Americans are working on the same line, who will guarantee the objectivity of the process?'' he asks. ``The US and the USSR are one pole now; we need a balance.''
With no clear frame of reference for the peace conference Baker seeks, Abu Ayyash is not optimistic that anything will come of the US effort, especially when he sees the US secretary of state unable to convince Israel even to suspend settlements in the occupied territories in order to improve the negotiating climate.
``My feeling is we don't lose much if we try another trail,'' Abu Ayyash says wearily, ``although deep in my heart I'm pessimistic.''