JTA / March 2, 2006
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — Afif Safieh, the PLO's man 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 terrorist group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, now controls 74 of 132 seats in parliament. Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister, says his government won't 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.
"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 JTA. "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."
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, a polished 56-year-old intellectual from East Jerusalem who has served in Geneva, The Hague and London, would not answer directly when asked whether Hamas might replace him as the PLO's man in Washington. Nor did he 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 said. "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."
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 by Palestinians than Ariel Sharon, who won worldwide accolades last year in the wake of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. 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."
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."