The rebel with a cause

PLO spokesman Michael Tarazi quit a high-flying law career in the US, and moved to war-torn Ramallah to represent his people. He tells David Robinson some things are more important than making a fortune on Wall Street. A little over five years ago, Michael Tarazi looked set to follow the established, if somewhat predictable route, typical of a high-flying graduate of Harvard Law School.

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By  David Robinson Published  October 9, 2005

The rebel with a cause|~|200-palestine.jpg|~|OUTSPOKEN: Tarazi admits that he was once ignorant of his Palestinian heritage, but is now a prominent speaker for his homeland.|~|PLO spokesman Michael Tarazi quit a high-flying law career in the US, and moved to war-torn Ramallah to represent his people. He tells David Robinson some things are more important than making a fortune on Wall Street. A little over five years ago, Michael Tarazi looked set to follow the established, if somewhat predictable route, typical of a high-flying graduate of Harvard Law School. Born in Kuwait, but of Palestinian origin, his is the classic American immigrant success story; the kind that gets retold at political fund-raising events to reinforce the country’s core values — ambition, hard work and attention to education. The youngest of three children, Tarazi’s family moved to the United States in 1970 in search of a better life. As a child he excelled at his studies and, after graduating from Harvard, was snapped up by a top Wall Street firm and embarked on a lucrative career in corporate law. Yet somewhere along the way he dropped the script. In 2000, Tarazi, abruptly quit his law job and moved to his parents’ Middle East homeland; abandoning a secure and promising career to live in the West Bank, just months before the violence and mayhem wrought by the Second Intifada. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing disclosure documents for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC),” he quips. “I didn’t necessarily feel I was selling my soul [practicing law], I just felt the need to do something more socially redeeming.” Tarazi moved to the Occupied Territories amid the optimism that preceded the Camp David summit of the same year, when he, like many others, believed the then Israeli and Palestinian leaders were on the cusp of an historic peace agreement. “I thought I was going to help a new state that was just on the verge of being created,” he recalls. “I had no idea I’d find myself in the mess that ensued after my arrival. It was quite a shock. “I was actually very naïve when I went there. I believed in the whole Camp David deal that was on offer and that peace was just around the corner, it was just a question of negotiations. “It was only after I got there I realised just how off my basic understandings were as a Palestinian and just how badly the Palestinian leadership was defending itself in the eyes of the world media. They didn’t really have a strategy for their message. That’s where I felt I could make a difference,” he adds. Today, the 37-year-old US citizen is widely regarded as of the most articulate and sophisticated advocates of the Palestinian cause. Young, witty, fluent in English, knowledgeable about international law and steeped in Western liberal ideals, Tarazi has become a regular guest on cable news channels the world over. His insightful, statesman-like soundbites have added a valuable dimension to his people’s fight for self-determination — lacking for years in the face of Israel’s well-oiled PR spin machine. Last week, Tarazi was in Qatar, taking part in a televised debate as to whether Arab governments have failed the Palestinians — as usual he expounded on events with his usual clear, meticulously researched style. He has also become one of the Palestinian Authority’s leading legal advisors, providing legal and political advice on a wide array of issues, such as the wall, refugees, Israeli settlements, and home demolitions. Many media organisations, particularly in the US, portray the Palestinian-Israeli conflict unfairly, he says, but it’s too simplistic to claim that is because one side controls the world’s television and newspapers. In the US, the imbalance is driven by pro-Israeli lobbying groups, vociferously monitoring the news and aggressively holding the press accountable for its version of events, he adds. “There isn’t very much on the other side trying to counter that effort.” Even the perceived liberal media is under the cosh from pro-Israeli pressure in the US to avoid any kind of confrontation over the issue, Tarazi says. “The New York Times uses the term ‘territory captured by Israel from Jordan the Palestinians want for their future state’ to describe the West Bank rather than simply call it the Occupied Territories, as defined by international law,” he says. “But take a look at the configuration. It's land captured from Jordan so, if anything, it's Jordanian territory. The Israelis captured it fair and square, so maybe it’s Israeli, and the Palestinians, well they just want it – they’re just greedy! “If you’re an American who doesn’t know very much about this conflict what are the subliminal messages you’re getting? Because of the inaccuracies many Americans are largely ignorant of what’s happened.” As a child growing up in Pennsylvania and Colorado, Tarazi admits he too was largely ignorant of his heritage, and what it means to be Palestinian. Then, in 1982, as a teenager at a boarding school in Massachusetts he'd won a scholarship to, he called home to find his mother in tears over the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon. “These are Palestinians,” she told him. “These are our people.” Thus marked the beginning of his immersion in the Palestinian cause, but the next catalyst was to come from an unlikely source. One of his mentors at boarding school was the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Everett Gendler, who helped subsidise Tarazi’s first trip to the occupied territories in 1983. The trip profoundly affected him, instilling the strong convictions he retains to this day. Nonetheless, Tarazi and Rabbi Gendler remain good friends. Having grown up in the US, with many Jewish influences, Tarazi views the conflict with an unusual open-mindedness, rare among the more strident advocates of his people’s plight. He is able to affirm the needs of the Palestinians without negating the comparable human and political needs of the Jews. It’s a stance that endears him to many on the American left. Zionism, he agrees, is at the root of many of the geopolitical problems troubling the world today, but he refuses to condemn it as an evil aberration like some of his peers. “[Zionism] is nationalism, pure and simple, and is no more an aberration than any other nationalism has been, including Palestinian nationalism,” he says, with typically balanced authority. “There is a difference between Zionism as a theory, which is simply Jewish national liberation of which there is absolutely no problem, versus Zionism in practice: a Jewish national liberation movement in a country where the majority of the people are not Jewish. Therefore, in practice it has emerged as something highly discriminatory, you can use the term racist, though that’s technically inaccurate because we’re not separate races. “How can you establish a Jewish state in a country where the majority of the people are not Jewish? You somehow have to get rid of those people, while holding onto their lands and that’s why we have the refugee problem today, see that played out in the settlements. “The Israelis were more than happy to rid themselves of Gaza and 1.4 million Palestinians who live there in exchange for building more settlements in the occupied territories, particularly East Jerusalem. That strategy of taking land while getting rid of people necessitates a certain amount of injustice.” In addition, Tarazi arrives at the negotiating table as an orthodox Christian — a group that makes up just 2% of the population of the Occupied Territories — in a struggle that has become mired in Islamist rhetoric. The Palestinian cause is now synonymous with a greater Muslim struggle the world over, but he dismisses the idea that his background might, in some way, provide a contradiction in terms. “We, as Palestinians have gone out of our way to show this is not a Jewish-Muslim struggle, but rather an indigenous population against what is seen as foreign occupiers,” he says. “It’s the policy of the PLO that even Jews here prior to the Zionist invasion are Palestinians. We don’t define ourselves as one religion or one ethnicity the way Zionism does." “Nevertheless,” he admits, “there is a religious component that has polarised both sides of the occupation, but I don’t think that is representative of what the Palestinian struggle is.” The international community may have lauded Israeli president’s Ariel Sharon recent Gaza pullout as a progressive and magnanimous gesture, but in reality the Jewish state is looking to force an un-winnable and unworkable solution on the problem, Tarazi says. “They have decided to simply impose a resolution and that’s exactly what the Gaza disengagement was all about. Israel didn’t try to coordinate. As the stronger party, they have no desire to compromise,” he says. Israel is trying to carve out a Palestinian state and enforce it, taking with it what its wants — for example, the water and the key agricultural areas, as well as legitimising many of the settlers — but leave behind the vast majority of the Palestinian population, Tarazi says. “We already know what Israel’s visions of its borders are and that’s exactly where the wall is being built. “The wall is not on Israel’s 1967 pre-occupation borders, it is well within the occupied Palestinian territories. It is routed to maximise the amount of Israeli land, while maximising the number of Palestinians on the other side,” he says. “It’s not the basis for a lasting peace,” Tarazi concludes, using his legal training to lay out, simply and clearly, the crux of the situation; making compelling arguments for a misrepresented people. One can only hope the Palestinian case continues to be heard by the world community.||**||

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