PLO: ‘We are the key to America’s “loveability” around the world’
Afif Safieh hardly has an easy job. As the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington he represents an organization that for long has claimed to represent the Palestinian people, and yet today is not running the Palestinian Authority government. The status of the PLO office itself is somewhat ambiguous, with the Congress having to approve its continued presence in Washington every six months, based on an agreement originally made in 1990.
"We are less than an embassy, but more than a liberation movement," Safieh told DiplomaticTraffic.com in a recent interview. What’s more, most diplomatic interaction between Washington and the Palestinians in power is conducted directly by the White House and State Department, or through the US consulate in Jerusalem.
The electoral victory of Hamas in the recent parliamentary elections, which gave them control of the PA, only complicated the situation further, as Hamas is not part of the PLO. Safieh describes the Palestinian Authority as "an emanation" of the PLO, an institution created by it. Given the differences in policies between Fatah, the group founded and led by Yasser Arafat, and now headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, which has always dominated the PLO, on the one hand, and Hamas, on the other, the PLO office has some difficulties representing PA policies in Washington. "It has made my task more challenging," Safieh says in a matter-of-fact tone.
Fatah has long-since agreed that the path to peace is through negotiations with Israel, while Hamas, post-elections, has refused to accept Israel’s right to exist, prompting a refusal by Israel to deal with the PA and the decision by Washington to cut off all aid to it. Israel has also refused to hand over some $50 million a month it collects in duties on behalf of the PA, plunging the organization into deep financial crisis.
Yet Safieh makes several points to underline what he sees as errors on the part of Washington in its handling of the Hamas electoral victory. He says "The American response was precipitous and unwise." He makes the argument that "You can’t be pro-democracy and then reject the results of a democratic election."
He says: "My message, from the first day after the elections, has been that we face two scenarios: either we create a credible peace process and engage Hamas in that, or we try to rule them through victory, and push them back into militancy."
Not surprisingly, he believes that the path that can lead Israel and Palestine back from the brink and towards a solution involves the international community, and Washington in particular, taking a "balanced" view of suffering among Israelis and Palestinians and pursuing policies that are more evenhanded. Essentially, Safieh is saying that demands on the warring parties should be similar. For example, if you ask Hamas to lay down its weapons you must at the same time ask Israel to cease its attacks on Palestinians.
Specifically, he says there are three conditions that need to be imposed on both sides:
1. Mutual recognition
2. Mutual rejection of violence
3. Respect for prior agreements
He argues that Hamas is a party that can be negotiated with. "I believe there is a pragmatic wing within Hamas," he says. He notes that Hamas was "the most disciplined party in the ceasefire, even though the ceasefire was unilateral." He also says that the Hamas’ No. 2, Sheikh Abu Tayr, told the Israeli newspaper Haaritz before the elections that Hamas’ agenda did not include the destruction of Israel, that if elected it would be willing to negotiate with Israel, and that resistance to Israel does not necessarily mean armed resistance.
Safieh says that the current round of fighting in Gaza could have been avoided if after the elections Washington had pushed for three things:
1. A mutually agreed ceasefire or cessation of violence.
2. Freedom of movement for Palestinians (they currently face 450 Israeli checkpoints)
3. Freedom for the 9,000 of 10,000 Palestinian detainees in Israel that have not been involved in violence.
But while European governments often call on Israel as well as the Palestinians to exercise restraint, the United States essentially agrees with Israel’s assessment of Hamas and other groups that resort to suicide bombings as terrorists that need to be defeated. He notes that an important pillar of US policy is Washington’s commitment to Israel’s existence, but says that this should not mean that Washington is also committed to Israel’s expansion.
Yet the United States, as the world’s sole superpower, would do well to show it can bring peace between Israel and Palestine, he says. "I am intrigued by the self-inflicted impotence of the US administration," he says. "We invite the United States to wage peace in Israel and Palestine." He believes that Washington, by failing to secure peace there, loses credibility in the rest of the region and the world.
"We are the key to America’s ‘loveability’ around the world," he says. "All we are calling for is America to reconcile its power to its principles." This, he believes, means that American foreign policy should be "non-aligned."
Representative Safieh points out that life for Palestinians in the occupied territories has become intolerable, with little electricity or drinkable water, highly-restricted movement, and virtually no work or economic activity.
The one bright spot for Palestinians in general, though, is the growing success of the Diaspora community. There are some 11.1 million Palestinians worldwide, with only 3.9 million of these in the occupied territories. And while poverty and deprivation is a way of life for most living in Palestine, Diaspora Palestinians have focused on education and hard work to get ahead, and many are successful.
"We are a global tribe, today," Safieh says. "We are the Jews of the Israelis." That tribe includes some 250-400,000 Palestinian Americans, as well as significant communities in Latin America, Europe and Australia. "They are becoming visible and well-integrated into their communities," he says. A Palestinian is president of Belize and many have excelled in business and academia.
He notes that the Diaspora Palestinians are still closely connected to their homeland, even though Israel has made it increasingly hard for them to return there, even for visits. He sums up his view of Israel’s policy like this: "I think Israel wants to acquire as much of our geography as possible with as little of our demography as possible."
Biography of Afif Safieh
-Afif Safieh was born in Jerusalem in 1950.
-Studied in Jerusalem at the "College Des Fre'res".
-In 1972, he obtained his licence in Political Science and International Relations from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
-In 1974, he finished his cycle superieur (3eme cycle) en Sciences Politiques from the foundation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris.
-He was President of the Belgian section of the General Union of Palestinian Students from 1969 until 1971, then President of the French branch in 1974-1975.
-From 1976 until 1978, he was deputy director of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Observer Mission to the United Nations, Geneva.
-From 1978 until 1981, he was staff member in President Arafat's office in Beirut, in charge of European Affairs and UN institutions.
-From 1981 until 1985, he was a researcher at the Centre for European Studies in the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
-Between 1985 and 1987, he was visiting scholar at the Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University.
-From 1987 until 1990, he was PLO representative to the Netherlands.
-He was involved in November-December 1988 in Stockholm negotiations that led to the official and direct American-Palestinian dialogue.
-He was nominated, Palestinian General Delegate to the United Kingdom in September 1990.
-In January 1995, he was invited to join the International Board of Trustees of Bethlehem University, the Vatican-sponsored University in Palestine.
-Nominated Palestinian General Delegate to the Holy See, he presented his letter of credentials to His Holiness Pope John ll on November 6, 1995.
- In November 2005, he assumed his duty as Head of the PLO Mission in Washington.
-Compilations of his articles have appeared in two books:
'Self determination', published by Al-Fajr printing press, Jerusalem, 1986 (jointly with his wife Christ'l Leclercq).
'One people Too Many?' published in the Hague in 1987.
and 3 booklets: 1-Children of a Lesser God? 2- The end of pre-history, 3- On Palestinian diplomacy ,published by the Palestinian General Delegation to the United Kingdom.
-He is married and has two girls: Diana and Randa