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PLO envoy Afif Safieh
The Washington Diplomat / March 2006

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization's chief representative in Washington, had been on the job only two and a half months when voters in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem overwhelmingly elected Hamas to head the next Palestinian government.

The Hamas victory over Fatah took Israel, the Arab world and even many Palestinians by surprise. In mid-February, Hamas with 74 of 132 seats in parliament named Ismail Haniyeh the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister and reiterated that it would not recognize Israel or engage in peace talks with the Jewish state, despite pleas from the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to do exactly that.

None of this makes Safieh's job any easier, especially since the Bush administration has threatened to withhold financial assistance to any government led by Hamas, officially known as the Islamic Resistance Movement.

"My assignment is a tough one, in the sense that I have all the duties of an ambassador and more, and I represent a people under occupation, yet I don't have the privileges," Safieh told the The Washington Diplomat. "I am proud to be Palestinian, even though I'm not happy with the results [of the election]. And I'm proud of the manner in which these heavily monitored elections were conducted."

Safieh, 56, was born and raised in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He studied political science and international relations at universities in Belgium and France, and headed branches of the General Union of Palestinian Students in both countries until 1976, when he was appointed deputy director of the PLO observer mission to the UN in Geneva. From there, he went onto top diplomatic postings in The Hague and London.

"I was quite instrumental in the Oslo process, because it's in London that the two negotiating partners first met in December 1992: Abu Ala'a and myself on the Palestinian side, and Yair Hirschfield, an assistant of Yossi Beilin, on the Israeli side. I was the one who arranged the meeting. I often joke with my Norwegian friends that if the Oslo accord hasn't put Palestine on the map by now, at least it put Norway on the map."

By 1994, the homesick diplomat decided it was time to return to his roots.

"I was planning to abandon politics, move back to Jerusalem and start a weekly English-language magazine called 'The Palestinian,' he recalled. "So I applied for family reunification, but the application was denied. The Israelis told me I could come back with my colleagues to Jericho, Ramallah or Gaza, but not East Jerusalem."

As a result, Safieh remained in politics and got named as the PLO's envoy to the Vatican, in a career that would eventually lead to Washington, where the eloquent, sophisticated Safieh took over his current job from his much less media-savvy predecessor, Hasan Abdel-Rahman.

Unlike the Israeli Embassy on International Drive, which probably has the tightest security of any diplomatic mission in Washington, the PLO office just off Dupont Circle has no security at all.

Visitors aren't questioned or searched in any way before taking the elevator up to the fourth floor of a pleasant-looking office complex fronting 18th Street. Photographs of al-Aqsa Mosque and the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat decorate the mission, which consists of exactly seven people, including Safieh's driver and receptionist.

Safieh would not answer directly when asked whether Hamas might replace him as the PLO's man in Washington, though he didn't completely discount the possibility that the State Department might close down his mission altogether.

"I have difficulties believing that U.S. legislators or the Bush administration would deprive themselves of an authoritative Palestinian voice in Washington," he said. "Silencing that voice would be so un-American and so un-Christian, that they will shun away from it."

As for Hamas itself, Safieh says there's no single factor that explains the movement's unexpected victory.

"It was a combination and convergence of factors," he suggested. "First of all, I don't think Hamas won that decisively. Its parliamentary contingent is magnified compared to the percentage of votes it actually received. Although Hamas candidates were the obvious winners, this was not a landslide the way some commentators ahve made it out to be."

Safieh said the fact that Fatah was the ruling party for 40 years first abroad and then back home with the birth of the PA "resulted in the erosion of its popularity." Secondly, there was the feeling of stagnation and the need for change.

"The perception of corruption and mismanagement was greater than the reality, but that was still a major handicap," he told the Diplomat. "The third factor was that Fatah had been identified during the last 15 years with the peace process they advocated and engaged in. That peace process has been totally unconvincing, and with devastating results such as the expansion of settlements, the continued strangulation of Palestinian society, and the suffocation of the Palestinian economy through 450 checkpoints that prohibit people's freedom of movement."

Safieh added: "Israel has dealt with great hypocrisy, often relying on a lazy international community. During the last 15 years, Israel never made it easy for the Palestinian Authority, even when it was led by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], who is perceived by the entire world as a democratic leader unambiguously in favor of peace. The Israelis tried to take advantage of global Islamophobia by demonizing Hamas and the entire Palestinian people and then make them pay a price for having dared to make a choice. I always told the Israelis that they wanted a diplomatic outcome that reflected Israeli power and intransigence."

"I personally do not encourage politicians and commentators to demonize Hamas," he said. "Hamas is not a monolithic movement. It has different schools of thought within it, and the modern, pragmatic and democratic wing of Hamas is today on the ascendancy."

But few people know this, he said, because Israel doesn't want that message to get out.

As an example, he said, high-ranking Hamas politician Sheikh Abu Teir recently granted an interview to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz,in which he said that Hamas recognizes "there is no total liberation of Palestine. This is not a tactical maneuver but a strategic shift" of ideology.

"Abu Teir said Hamas would pursue negotiations and might do it even better than its predecessors," Safieh told the Diplomat "He said, 'when we speak of resistance after the elections, it does not necessarily mean armed resistance.' Such a statement must have been music to everybody's ears. Yet the day after he gave this interview, the Israeli occupation forces arrested him and threw him in jail. This was unnoticed by the international media."

Also ignored, Safieh said, was an Israeli intelligence report suggesting that the dramatic reduction in Palestinian violence is thanks to the internal dialogue initiated by Abbas.

"The Israelis did not attribute the reduction of violence either to their policy of repression or targeted killings, nor to this theoretical protective shield or wall of apartheid, which has led to the gradual pauperization of Palestinian society," he said, adding that "the taxes Israel collects on our behalf have been used as a tool for blackmail, even though this is money they owe us."

Safieh criticized what he calls "the constant American alignment" on the side of Israel, as well as "European abdication, Arab impotence and Palestinian resignation" in the face of Israel's territorial desires.

"During those theoretical years of peacemaking, what we really witnessed was not the withdrawal of occupation but the expansion of occupation," he said, estimating that over 450,000 Jews now live illegally in the West Bank twice as many as in 1993, when the Oslo accords were concluded.

"There are no legal settlers, and the Israelis never calculate the illegal settlements in and around East Jerusalem. They are equally as illegal, and these settlements grew faster during the rule of Barak's Labor Party than during the years of Netanyahu's Likud."

However, few Israeli leaders were more hated than Ariel Sharon, who despite his heavy-handed treatment of the Palestinians won worldwide accolades last year in the wake of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But Safieh discounts this as "undeserved praise from world leaders suffering from self-inflicted impotence."

"When Sharon was elevated to sainthood, he was the first one to be amused by all these descriptions of himself," he said. "Sharon withdrew from Gaza only because he saw the Palestinian people as a threat. He thought that with one stroke, he'd get rid of 1.4 million Palestinians and gain 30 years in the demographic race. The world sees him agonizing with the decision of withdrawing 8,000 illegal settlers, and forgets that in the meantime, many more settlers have been directed toward the West Bank."

On the other hand, when the 77-year-old Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state that continues to this day, Safieh said he wished him a speedy recovery despite all that Sharon had done to frustrate Palestinian dreams of self-determination.

"I got extremely angry at Pat Robertson a merchant of delirious theology  for saying that Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for having divided God's land. This is not Christianity. This is not faith. I believe that God is not a real-estate agent. The universe is his property, not just the Holy Land. It's humanity which is the chosen people, not one particular tribe."

Safieh added: "As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ has never left, so we don't need to accelerate his return. Jesus doesn't need Pat Robertson as his stage manager. Every time I see Pat Robertson, I feel the need to defend God's innocence."

At present, Safieh said, there are 9.6 million Palestinians in the world. Approximately 3.6 million of them are crammed into the cities, towns and refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, while another 1.1 million live in Israel proper. The remaining 4.9 million are scattered throughout the Arab world, Europe, the United States and Latin America.

"Israel has disrupted the lives of six generations of our people, from 1917 to 2006," he said. "We've been ejected to the periphery of our homeland. We have been demonized and persecuted in our own country and abroad. Yet we, the victims, have moved towards mutual recognition faster than those who chose to be our oppressors. Many observers are intrigued at how, in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, the oppressors hate the victims much more than the victims hate the oppressors."

Safieh said his people have been "unreasonably reasonable" in accepting a two-state solution which envisions the future State of Palestine comprising only 22% of its original territory.

"I've always said that the Israeli government is hardly equipped to be a moral compass, neither for the Middle East nor for America," he said. "This is the same Israeli government that has in recent years incorporated openly Jewish fundamentalist parties, or parties that openly advocated the transfer of Palestinians beyond the Jordan River, meaning ethnic cleansing."

Looking ahead to next month's general elections, Safieh said he has little doubt that Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, will carry Sharon's centrist Kadima party to victory. What happens after that depends on Israel's willingness to deal with Hamas, as well as its determination to remove Jewish settlements in the West Bank that should never have been put there in the first place.

In the final analysis, suggested Safieh, Israel has a choice: it can be in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or in the Middle East but not both.

"The Israelis should remember that we, the Palestinians, are the key to Israel's regional acceptance. When the peace process was moving smoothly, doors were opening up from Morocco to Muscat. When it was moving roughly, those same doors were closed," he said. "Security comes from regional acceptance, not territorial aggrandizement."

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