When negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-government broke down after the massacre of about 30 Muslims at a West Bank mosque, the telephone at Dr. Ahmad Tibi’s office in East Jerusalem started ringing--and has continued to do so almost nonstop.
Calls came from Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s closest advisers, asking the perpetually harried gynecologist what it would take to get the talks going again.
Other calls came from PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, including from Chairman Yasser Arafat, asking Tibi to explain to the Israelis the whys and wherefores of the Palestinian conditions for resuming negotiations.
And still more calls came from senior diplomats here and in Europe, from would-be mediators and others volunteering ideas or assistance in concluding an agreement, now scheduled to be signed Wednesday, on implementing Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Nobody except extremists . . . wants the peace process to die,” Tibi said, “but Israelis and Palestinians still have great trouble in talking to each other and in understanding the other’s point of view and his needs. They don’t need a translator for language. They need a translator for ideas.”
Tibi, 37, one of Israel’s 950,000 Arab citizens, has served as such a translator behind the scenes for nearly a decade, bringing Israelis into contact with Palestinians and the PLO leadership even at a time when Israeli contacts with the PLO were illegal.
As Arafat’s “special adviser” for Israeli affairs, he is expected to remain a key channel of private communication between the PLO leader and Israel as the West Bank and Gaza Strip become a self-governing region--and negotiations continue for what Palestinians hope will be full statehood.
So prominent has he become in recent months that the Israeli press is already speculating that he could be Israel’s first ambassador to a Palestinian state--or Palestine’s “honorary consul” in Jerusalem.
Tibi disavows such ambitions.
“As an Israeli citizen, I won’t have any position in the Palestinian autonomy or the Palestinian state that will follow,” he said. “This is the very thing that makes me effective as an adviser--I don’t want any job.
“I am a Palestinian citizen of the state of Israel, and I saw it as my duty to help my people and my country.”
Tibi continued: “When I first met Arafat in 1984, he talked of peace with Israel. From Arafat and from others in the PLO, I was convinced a solution based on two states, Israel and Palestine, could be found. Finally, we are accomplishing that vision, though I know we are not through all the problems and crises yet.”
The son of a banker in the Arab town of Taiyiba, Tibi graduated from Hebrew University and its medical school.
“With me, politics has been a latent virus,” he said. “I really just want to be a good doctor, but I have had this passion for politics since high school. So when someone calls and asks for help, off I go.”
Through the years, Tibi has arranged visits by Israeli politicians to Tunis, introduced such liberal Israeli groups as Peace Now and the Citizens’ Rights Party to the PLO and advised the PLO at the Madrid Conference that launched the Middle East peace negotiations in October, 1991.
Tibi’s political activities led several times into conflict with Israeli authorities. The military barred him for a time from the occupied territories, the government refused him permission to travel abroad, and in 1989, Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, taped a call he made from PLO headquarters to Ezer Weizman, then Israel’s science minister and now president, leading to Weizman’s exclusion from the Cabinet’s security discussions.
Last summer, when Arafat and Rabin wondered whether they could trust one another in secret negotiations then under way in Oslo, they used Tibi to carry messages back and forth.
“I keep secrets,” he explained.
Tibi’s role as a top-level envoy has drawn questions from both Israelis and Palestinians about where his loyalty lies.
“Yasser Arafat is the president of my people; Ezer Weizman is the president of my state,” he replied. “I see no conflict in this.”