He has been called the most prominent Palestinian nationalist in the West Bank; a leader of the intifada , the Arab uprising against Israeli occupation; the main representative of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization within the Occupied Territories. Seldom does a news analysis on the Arab/Israeli problem appear in print without including a comment from Faisal Husseini, usually adding that he is considered a must on any future negotiating team.
Not the sort of credentials to gain entree to the heavily secured Jewish Federation Building on Wilshire Boulevard. Yet there stood Faisal Husseini last week as he faced 100 members of the Jewish community who had gathered at the invitation of the American Jewish Congress.
Ironically, Husseini, who has urged Soviet Jews to think twice about emigrating to Israel, stood before a huge blue and white backdrop proclaiming "Operation Exodus: Join the Campaign to Rescue Soviet Jews."
The son of a Palestinian military commander who was killed in Israeli war of independence in 1948, Husseini was traveling with an unlikely companion, Yael Dayan, the daughter of the legendary Israeli general Moshe Dayan. They were brought here for a two-day visit sponsored by Americans for Peace Now, a support group for the Israeli peace organization that advocates a political settlement--accepting a so-called two-state solution--with the Palestinians.
Their visit was promoted with the statement, "Our Fathers Fought to the Death, Now We're Struggling to Make Peace." It was a theme they reiterated during numerous private and public functions, mostly within the Jewish community. One luncheon was given by local Palestinian businessman Mahmoud El Farra and attended by about 50 members of the Arab community.
The visit coincided with President Bush's decision to suspend U.S. talks with the PLO and is happening at a time when Israel faces the most hard-line government yet on the question of Palestinians. Nonetheless, Husseini urged his listeners to use that situation to their advantage to campaign for peace--in their respective communities and "on the Hill." Both Husseini and Dayan described initial anger and dismay at Bush's action. But on second thought, each used the same phrase to say they were heartened by a clear message to the Israelis: "The ball is in your field."
At the Jewish Federation, Husseini was asked to clarify his position about Soviet emigration.
"I accept Israel as a state," Husseini answered. "That means, practically, I accept it can give its passport to whoever wants one. So we have nothing to say about immigration to Israel. But the problem is, this immigration is also to the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem--places we believe must also solve the problem of Palestinian refugees in the future."
Nevertheless, he said, "We are not against Jews living in the Palestinian state in the future, including in Jerusalem. But not (at the expense of) our own people."
If Husseini is a leader, he is a quiet leader. He displays little emotion, does not raise his voice, engages in no grand gestures or histrionics, and, in short, is not a charismatic figure. During his visit, his manner was the same among the Arabs as it was among the Jews. He comes across reasonable and diplomatic, but not conciliatory.
He seemed to have trouble holding onto his calm just once, at a private reception in Brentwood, when responding to the by-then frequent question: Why won't Yasser Arafat and his followers more clearly disavow and condemn terrorists such as Abul Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Front, which led the aborted raid on the Israeli beach last month?
Standing in front of a large coffee table, his listeners seated on deep, chintz-upholstered sofas and chairs, sipping wine or designer waters, he sought to bring the reality of the conflict into the drawing room.
Husseini reminded the group that he has always advocated nonviolence and condemned terrorism, and that he did so again in this instance immediately after the attack. But with the increasing demands from the U.S. State Department concerning the manner of the condemnation, he said, it became more difficult for him.
"Maybe it's difficult for Americans to understand what it is to be under oppression. You have not been ruled by another government," he said, his face tensing and his throat tightening as he spoke. "You can't understand how painful it is to us to be told, 'Do it this way, not that. Do it now.' "
That, he said, is how Arafat was treated in 1988 when he appeared in Geneva, accepted the existence of the Israel and renounced terrorism. The Americans then said, " 'Now you've proved you are good boys. But we are going to talk about peace now. So get out of the room. Go behind the curtain.' Our people said, 'What are you doing? To be out behind the curtain!' There was a lot of pressure inside from our people."