Hanan Ashrawi on Benazir Bhutto: a very brave woman whose assassination is a very big loss

In our previous post, Bhutto in Geneva, we picked up on a comment in one of YNet’s stories today which reported that Israeli Knesset Member “Colette Avital (Labor) met Bhutto for the first time in the 90s at a dinner held by former US President Jimmy Carter, when the Labor Knesset member served as Israeli consul general in New York. During the party, Avital recalled, Bhutto sat in on an argument she held with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi over the regional conflict“.

(Colette Avital, for what’s it’s worth, was one of the signatories of The Geneva Accord/Initiative, and was present at the Swiss-sponsored 3 December 2004 “Public Commitment” in Geneva, including at a post-commitement press conference in which she participated with Avraham Burg and Qaddura Fares.)

Reached by telephone in Ramallah just now, Hanan Ashrawi recalled her first meeting with Benazir Bhutto at that event. “It wasn’t an argument”, Ashrawi said. “We were invited by President Carty to the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, to a small dinner”. Ashrawi said that she met Benazir Bhutto several times afterwards: “She certainly was a very brave woman, who stood for democracy despite lots of obstacles — social, societal, and even personal. She steered the course for democracy and against any extremism and violence”.

Ashrawi said that Bhutto’s assassination is “a very big loss to the woman’s movement in politics and democratic movements globally. Her courage is quite noted, and she paid with her life”.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman have all said they believe Benazir Bhutto wanted to establish official relations with Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres told JPost that Benazir “expressed interest in Israel and said that she hoped to visit upon returning to power“. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the JPost that “Upon her return to Pakistan two months ago, Bhutto had stopped in London and, through a mutual acquaintance, relayed a message that she would “in the future like to strengthen the ties between Israel and Pakistan.” And Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman told the JPOST that “Bhutto was interested in normalizing relations with Israel. ‘She was interested in me relaying that information to Washington and the US, which I did’.”

(In 1994, during the Oslo process — and after the Gaza-and-Jericho first withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces from occupied Palestinian territory — there was a flap about Benazir Bhutto wanting to visit Gaza, but without asking for a visa from Israel. But, as Israel has controlled all access to Palestinian territory for decades, that was not possible, and Benazir’s visit was called off. The New York Times reported on 31 August 1994 that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Israel would give permission for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan to visit the Gaza strip: “Mr. Peres said that he and the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasir Arafat, had reached an agreement on the visit, proposed for Sept. 4, in a telephone call. ‘Yes, we more or less agreed on that’, Peres told Israeli army radio when asked if they had spoken of the visit. ‘I don’t know the dates, but Israel’s agreement will be given’. The issue of who would have to give permission for the visit was seen as a delicate one of sovereignty over the self-rule area. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel said Monday that Ms. Bhutto had displayed bad manners by announcing that she would visit without permission. Today, Pakistan criticized the ‘discourteous’ remarks by Rabin. Israel insists that under its self-rule agreement with Palestinians, any visitor whose country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel would require its clearance for entry to Gaza. Israel controls all crossings to the strip”. The NYTimes story is archived here.)

President Musharraf also made overtures to Israel. His foreign minister met Israel’s Foreign Minister (Silvan Shalom, at the time) in Istanbul in September 2005, after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza. The Washington Post reported at the time that “Pakistan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, although senior officials from the intelligence services of both countries have maintained regular back-channel contacts since the early 1990s, according to an aide to Musharraf, who spoke on condition of anonymity …T he meeting at a hotel in Istanbul between Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and Israel’s top envoy, Silvan Shalom, was initiated by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and signaled the government’s desire to improve relations with the Jewish state after decades of enmity, Pakistani officials said … Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Kasuri said Pakistan had no immediate plans to formally recognize Israel, a step he said would come only ‘following progress toward the solution of the Palestinian problem’. He described the meeting as ‘a gesture to underscore the importance that we in Pakistan attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza’, adding, ‘It is important that Israel is encouraged to continue to pursue the course of peace’ … Musharraf’s aide described Thursday’s meeting as part of a broader initiative. The meeting could soon be followed by an official visit to Gaza by a Pakistani delegation, officials said. ‘Pakistan believes that by engaging Israel diplomatically, it can help resolve the Middle East crisis’, Kasuri said in a telephone interview from Istanbul”. This Washington Post article is archived here.

What this shows, it seems, is that both Bhutto and Musharraf are consummate politicians who believed that having cordial relations with Israel is key to having good relations with Washington.

Hanan Ashrawi said in the phone interview today that Benazir had never told her of any interest in establishing relations with Israel: “She was extremely supportive of the Palestinian cause, and dead set against the Israeli occupation, and against the continuation of the occupation. She said she supported an independent Palestinian state — and she said that the occupation must end, and that’s why she didn’t want to deal with the Israelis when she wanted to come to Palestine”.

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