TANGIER, Morocco, Nov. 23 (UPI) — Dr. Rafiq Hussini doesn’t mix words. He can’t afford to. Caught between Hamas, Israel and his own Fatah, he is Palestinian President Abbas’s chief of staff. He is Abbas’s eyes and ears — a man who must manage conflicts vertically and horizontally.
Hussini and I are on the same plane from Amsterdam to Tangier — along with Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Said Hindam, responsible for EU and North African Affairs. We are all shattered, and don’t chat in depth until we land. I had flown in from Budapest, having previously been in Chicago, some 37 hours earlier. The other two gentlemen had equally circuitous paths. We are all guest speakers at the Amadeus Institute’s 2nd Annual Mediterranean Conference. Hussini later sits down with me for a talk.
A medical doctor by training — “Marc, you really should think about quitting smoking,” he comments at one point — Hussini is a realist and pragmatist. For some he is too moderate. He believes in a two-state solution, “along the lines of the 1948 mandate. I want us to be good neighbors and have a tolerant society with Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Palestinians are mostly secular.”
We talk about Abbas’s decision to withdraw his re-election candidacy. “Abbas is not a monarch. He didn’t inherit his office. He won’t pass it on,” I mean compare that to lots of leaders in the area. “Abbas is 75, he doesn’t want to stay on forever,” Hussini continues. “He came on a mandate after the Intifada — whose militarization he criticized — advocating peaceful negotiations.”
Most people thought Abbas would not survive the 6th Fatah conference, but he did with near unanimous support. “He has established rule of law. He has strengthened the PLO executive and Palestine National Council. He has offered diversity, social and cultural hope to the young.”
“President Abbas has left a slight opening to reconsider his candidacy. But this is not a tactic. He has principles. He has engendered more transparency and accountability with little support from our Arab neighbors. It seems the road map has been relegated from the top to bottom by the Obama administration. You have the U.S. president saying one thing and Secretary Clinton saying another.”
Abbas wants to see signs of a principled U.S. stand against settlements, and certainly a moratorium on building. He also wants a definite commitment on the status of East Jerusalem. “The Israelis keep us weak, and on life support. Like an IV unit dripping into us. But they won’t let us become strong, and they play the Palestinian Authority and Hamas off each other.
“Of course Abbas’s advisers want him to stay. The Palestinian people know they will lose an important person without him there. But ultimately it is his personal choice. And I mean a personal choice, not a political one.”
I prod him about the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to peace. “Look, we have done everything the U.S. had asked us to do in the road map. And what do we get for it — no recognition. No Palestinian leader can sign an agreement without an agreement on Gaza and East Jerusalem. ”
Hussini — who is later on a panel with Tzipi Livni, a surprise guest and Israel’s former foreign minister and current opposition leader — a cordial but critical debate — condemns those who use missiles and bombs. “Marc, people only see the settlers and soldiers — many of whom are young and have no power to fight their condition. But they don’t see the other Israelis. He says that Israelis “can think out of the box, but can’t move. The Israelis know they cannot control this area forever. They don’t want to confront 4 million refugees. They can’t separate us indefinitely.
“The Israelis are so schizophrenic about security, about imminent threats, that most everything they do is counterproductive. By keeping us weak, they strengthen Hamas. We have no power in Gaza. We only control 12 percent of former Palestine. Does that make sense?”
“Netanyahu has no moving ability. He has the xenophobic Shas Party and the rightist Lieberman bloc in his government. He is buying time. He wants to stay in power. Contrast that with Abbas who is prepared to go.” I ask him if the Palestinians don’t also have extremists. “Yes, but we have not put them in government — we have tried to marginalize them — and that is the difference.”
The peace process has been on the rocks since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I ask if Ehud Barak could change things. “No, he has been an appalling defense minister. He is bitter about losing the elections and feels we let him down. He left Lebanon in shambles. Barak had to move to the right. Amir Peretz (the former Labor leader and defense minister) might have been a change. But, Israelis have also moved to the right. And our people are also becoming more intransigent. Our next leader will be more hawkish as well.”
The Israelis will not consider the Saudi Arabian Peace Initiative. “But it is really their last best hope,” says Hussini.
“As is President Abbas. He gives our young people hope. And the Israelis really must give us our dignity.”
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)