Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian professor and newspaper editor, sat among the rows of delegates at last week's Middle East peace conference, a black-and-white checked scarf folded carefully around his shoulders--the same kind of kaffiyeh that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat folds into the shape of Palestine every morning and places on his head.
It was a quiet statement from a delegation the Israelis had agreed to meet with only because they didn't have PLO membership cards. But then, it seemed, very little about the 14-member Palestinian delegation was really what the Israelis had hoped for. The 36-year-old resident of the West Bank community of Jericho gazed steadily at Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
"I was looking Shamir in the eye, saying, 'You can't deny my existence anymore,' " Erakat recalls. " 'I am here.' "
In three short days of peace talks in Madrid, it became apparent that the Palestinians have walked much of the long road back from the Gulf War, rehabilitating themselves with their Arab neighbors, earning expressions of appreciation from the United States and, for the first time in their history, taking places as virtually equal partners at a negotiating table with Israel.
The 28-member delegation and advisory committee that was supposed to function as a joint delegation with Jordan instead stole much of the limelight in Madrid. As the Israelis and the Syrians slugged it out in an inglorious bout of mudslinging, the tall, elderly physician who represented the Palestinians at the table delivered a poetic message of pain and hope, appealing to the world: "We cannot be made to bear the brunt of other people's 'no.' "
Instead of acting as secondary members of a joint delegation, the Palestinians won the right to address the conference on an equal footing, to chauffeur their chief delegate in a separate car like all the other delegation heads, and to bring to Madrid many of the Palestinian activists with whom Israel had flatly refused to negotiate, describing them as "advisory" delegates and placing them in the glare of television spotlights to present the Palestinians' case to the world.
"It's been a total transformation of the Palestinian movement. In three days, we've had a new intifada, " said Albert Aghazarian, a spokesman for the delegation, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule.
Diplomats and political analysts say there may be more at stake than public relations as this new face of the Palestinian movement--the men and women living daily under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--comes sharply into view, and the aging guerrillas of the PLO sit frustrated and silent in Tunis.
The PLO's Arab critics are hoping that new celebrities like Faisal Husseini, head of an East Jerusalem think tank closed by the Israelis, and English literature professor Hanan Ashrawi, along with their less-visible contemporaries, may be an emerging nucleus for the next generation of Palestinian leadership.
"People didn't get visions of airliners blowing up when they saw the old man (Palestinian delegation chief Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi) talking, but they sure would have if Arafat would have been there," said an Arab diplomat. He said Husseini's and Ashrawi's key role in engineering the Palestinian participation in the peace process, via several highly publicized meetings with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, assured their continuing visible position within the Palestinian movement.
"A year ago, they wouldn't have been able to come to this peace conference, because the PLO would say stop, and if they didn't stop, they'd be shot," the envoy said. "But now they can't be shot, because this conference has turned them into supermen. They're untouchable."
"The bottom line is," he said, "it's shifting from the PLO to the territories, and that's a major plus for the Palestinians in terms of how the world perceives them."
The Palestinian delegates to Madrid have made it clear that their allegiance is to the PLO even if they have no official connections. Ashrawi and Husseini met with Arafat in Morocco on the eve of their first bilateral talks, and at the PLO office in Madrid, where a 24-hour-a-day command center headed by PLO executive committee member Nabil Shaath operated during the conference, there was a faxed copy from Tunis of the speech Abdel-Shafi delivered, signed with Arafat's nom de guerre.
"God crown your efforts with success. Abu Amar," it said.
Israeli officials, claiming not to know the itineraries of Husseini and Ashrawi, insisted that the reported meeting with Arafat would not affect their willingness to attend the talks this morning.
"The PLO is a shadow to us, and we are a shadow to the PLO," said Gaza City lawyer Freih abu Middain, a member of the official delegation. "It is a frame for our struggle, and be sure that nobody will come to Madrid if there is no permission from the PLO."
"Always, Mr. Shamir wants to talk to a ghost," he said. "He knows the ghost is the PLO, but he wants to be blind."
Political analysts say the Palestinians managed to deftly put behind them the issue of the PLO when Abdel-Shafi delivered an opening speech that simply assumed a connection to the PLO and its history without specifically stating it.
He talked about "our leadership" without naming it, referred calmly to past decisions of the PLO's ruling Palestine National Council and, in the end, quoted "Chairman Arafat."
"They took it for granted. They dealt with the PLO as if it were not an issue, and with dignity, in a non-provocative manner," said Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, a Cairo political scientist and member of the Egyptian delegation.
"It was a splendid presentation," Dessouki said. "They behaved in a very honorable way. Shafi was ahead of the Israelis at all times, he was talking about peace, he did not make any mistakes; on the contrary, he scored a lot of points and a lot of sympathy."
The Palestinians hurried to Madrid with a delegation of at least 80 that included Palestinian academics, researchers, clerks and experts from all over the Middle East and much of the rest of the world--organizing press conferences, planning strategy, preparing for the detailed bilateral talks where homework can mean all the difference when it comes to negotiating for a homeland.
"Faisal and Hanan got us here on sheer will and guts," said a U.S.-based Palestinian who has helped coordinate the delegation in Madrid.
"At this point, the Palestinian level of the joint delegation is operating on the same level as the foreign ministries of major powers. But we've done surprisingly well in spite of horrible problems. It's been like trying to put out a fire with 10 people who never met each other before."
For Palestinians, the largely ceremonial three days of public speeches has been an epiphany of sorts, a sign both of their acceptance as players in the Middle East and of the world's determination to resolve their more than 40-year conflict with Israel.
"I knew when I packed my luggage to come here, I knew I'd never be the same person again. Whatever the outcome is, I know I'll never be the same person again. None of us will," Erakat said.
For most of the delegation, the crowning moment came when Abdel-Shafi rose at the podium, before Shamir and the entire world, and presented the Palestinians' case.
"It is time for us to witness our own story, to stand witness as advocates of a truth which has long lain buried in the consciousness and conscience of the world," he said quietly.
"We do not stand before you as supplicants, but rather as torch bearers who know that in our world of today, ignorance can never be an excuse. We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past inequities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality."
"It was Haidar's speech which carried the whole syndrome of the pain and the suffering. That, to me, was the most important moment," said Aghazarian, former spokesman for Bir Zeit University, the West Bank university that has been closed longer than any other by the Israelis.
"The feeling was that even if the Palestinians all disappear after the speech, that speech will leave them somewhere in history."
With their address to the world, said delegation member Samir Abdullah, economics professor at An-Najah University, "I think for the first time we succeeded to show that the problem is not a small or local problem, it is an international problem.
"We succeeded to show it is not Israel against the Palestinians, but Israel against international legitimacy."
"We have achieved in three days great things," Middain added. "At last, we have removed the dust from our face, we have removed the garbage from our head. After the Gulf War, we were already terminated. but we have come back to the picture."
After the first day of meetings, Erakat telephoned home to Jericho.
"When I spoke to my father, he couldn't speak because he was crying for five minutes," he said.
"The 30th of October, Madrid, signals our turning point, a real turning point, at least as far as the Palestinian people is concerned," he said.
"We have asked the public to join with us in leaving the squares of a zero-sum game. Shamir for some time has been trying to push us into a sea of blood. But in the end, the future lies in our ability to leave these squares, because whether it's 25 years or 50 years or 100 years, this conflict cannot but produce two winners or two losers. Two winners means two neighbors."