When Haidar Abdel Shafi was chosen to head the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks, very few of his fellow residents in the Gaza Strip were surprised.
Anyone who has spent time in Gaza, visited the squalid refugee camps, drunk coffee with the leadership, walked through the bustling souks, or stood with the crowds near the jails, would have learned that one of the most respected men in Gaza is the enigmatic "Dr. Haidar," as he is called in his home town.
Why enigmatic? Some will say that he is somewhat taciturn and plays his cards close to his chest. Others will mention that he has never identified with a political faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Still others will cite rumors that he was a communist, which elicits forceful denials from Dr. Shafi. What is true is that his succinctly expressed thoughts are carefully listened to by all the leaders, including the Israeli generals who govern the area.
By profession he is a doctor. He was born in Gaza in 1919 and received his medical degree from the American University in Beirut in 1943; he received additional training under the British in Haifa and later as a post-graduate student in the United States. He was pleased with his profession. Indeed outside of short stints into the world of politics, Dr. Shafi spent most of his adult life healing and caring for his patients in the Gaza Strip.
But as one examines the short periods of his life which he dedicated to political involvement -- as speaker for the legislative council of Gaza in 1963 under Egyptian rule, or as a member of the PLO executive in 1964 -- a pattern emerges that indicates that the executive board of the PLO and the other Palestinian leaders knew what they were doing when they suddenly called him and told him that they had chosen him to be their leader at the peace talks.
Dr. Shafi does not enjoy playing political games. He calls a spade a spade. When Yasser Arafat hugged Saddam Hussein after Iraq had gobbled up Kuwait, Dr. Shafi publicly denounced the deed and the Iraqi invasion and called for Mr. Arafat's resignation. Mr. Arafat, the doctor held, had done too much damage to the Palestinian cause.
He is also unwilling to overlook bad faith or to indulge in the small talk. He made this clear to Secretary of State James Baker when he met with him, as part of the Palestinian delegation, at the start of Mr. Baker's visits to the Middle East. When my wife and I went to Gaza to say goodbye to him before leaving for a sabbatical at the University of Notre Dame, he told us of his exchange with the Secretary of State last April in Jerusalem.
Dr. Shafi asked if Mr. Baker thought that the continual appropriation of Palestinian land was not a hindrance to the peace talks, especially since the Israelis were creating a situation which would be extremely difficult to roll back. Mr. Baker agreed that the continuing settlement policy of Mr. Shamir's government was such a hindrance.
"Well," asked Dr. Shafi, "Why don't you prevail on the Israeli government to at least stop the settlements until the peace talks get under way?" "Congress would not let us," answered the secretary of state.
Dr. Shafi reminded Mr. Baker that President Eisenhower was able to prevail on the Israeli government to retreat from Sinai and Gaza in 1957, and also of the possibility of a presidential veto. Mr. Baker changed the subject.
After this exchange, Dr. Shafi decided that he had no reason to continue to meet with the secretary of state, and did not meet with him again until the opening of the peace talks in Madrid last fall.
pTC That brief exchange with Mr. Baker reveals that what interests Dr. Shafi are principles of justice and working in good faith. That is probably the reason that he alone among the leaders who spoke at Madrid mentioned the issue of human rights.
Indeed, Dr. Shafi does not only want a peaceful solution to a period of war in the Middle East, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. He also dreams of justice and freedom for residents of the area and believes that they can be brought about by political involvement. In short, he is a statesman. As such he is almost an almost extinct species in today's political world -- especially in the Middle East.
Haim Gordon, an Israeli professor, is on sabbatical at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.