Border Control / The optimist from East Jerusalem
Afif Safieh did not have to read it in the paper that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is suggesting that expectations be lowered for the peace conference planned for this coming November. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative in the United States returned this weekend to Washington with fewer expectations than he had when he took off from there for a visit home two weeks earlier.
Passing through the checkpoints on the way to Ramallah and Jericho illustrated for Safieh the huge gap between the festive promises Israel gave the Americans to ease up on residents of the territories and improve Abu Mazen's standing, and the sad reality in the territories.
"Do you know the definition of a pessimist?" asks Safieh. He answers with a bitter smile: "an optimist with information."
Even of the Americans, his current hosts, the ambassador has modest to nonexistent hopes.
"The time has come for the American administration to wean itself from its impotence. I very much hope that the conference will be a turning point that will give the signal for a credible and irreversible peace process, and not another nonevent." Safieh quotes from the words of the Zionist Leader Nahum Goldman, who described Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the mid-1970s as: "Diplomacy in the Middle East is the art of postponing the inevitable as much as possible." Safieh still hopes that the conference in November will manage to disprove Goldman's view.
If they were to name someone "the Abba Eban of Palestinian diplomacy," it is doubtful Safieh, 56, would have any competition. The Israeli Foreign Ministry would welcome staff to explain things with a sense of humor like his and his fluent English and French. For most of his life, ever since he left his native Jerusalem and went to study in Belgium, he has worked on the PLO's foreign relations. At the age of 19, Safieh was the president of the Belgian branch of the Palestinian students' organization. Five years later, when he completed his undergraduate degree in political science in Paris, he headed the French branch of the organization.
Safieh, the scion of a Catholic Jerusalem family that wandered from the Baka neighborhood in the western part of the city to Sheikh Jarrah in its eastern part, moved on to work for the PLO representation adjacent to the UN institutions in Geneva. He spent three years (1978-1981) in Yasser Arafat's office in Beirut as the head of European and UN affairs.
In 1988, while he was the PLO representative in the Netherlands, Safieh was involved in talks mediated by the then Swedish foreign minister, Sten Andersen, which led to the opening of the direct dialogue between the U.S. and the PLO.
In 1992, two years after being appointed the PLO representative in London, Safieh introduced Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) to an Israeli pair of doctors, Yair Hirshfeld and Ron Pundak.
This was the first (and not the last) direct meeting of the senior Palestinian leadership with Israelis. The continuation, as may be recalled, came in Oslo.
After the signing of the historic agreement, Safieh submitted a request to the Interior Ministry to return to the bosom of his family in Jerusalem, in the framework of family reunification; he wanted to publish a quality English language weekly and managed to enlist several prominent intellectuals, headed by Prof. Edward Said.
Even though the reason why he was not included in the population census taken in 1967 was his studies abroad, Israel closed the doors to him.
Just under two years ago, after quite a few efforts, the Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the previous foreign minister in his government, Nasser al-Kidwa, managed to persuade the PLO foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi to transfer the head of the Palestinian representation in Washington, Hassan Abd al-Rahman to the PLO offices in Morocco.
After 15 years during which he became part of the diplomatic scene in London, Safieh and his Belgian wife left their two daughters, who are students, and crossed the ocean.
Since then he has been treading in muddied waters. The Christian Arab (Safieh is also the PLO representative to the Vatican) has had to repel the wave of Islamophobia sweeping over Americans following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Not only does he have to deal with the Jewish lobby, whose influence over the centers of power in the American capital it is hard to exaggerate, he must also maneuver between the PLO-in-the-territories and the PLO abroad, between the Fatah-West Bank government and the Hamas-Gaza government.
Safieh says he does not dance to any one's beat. Each morning he reads the papers in English and Arabic and formulates for himself an agenda and his policy guidelines.
"Because of the imbalance between us, we won't be able to advance without the involvement of a third party," says Safieh, in a conversation on the balcony of Notre Dame in Jerusalem.
"With all due respect to the Quartet, the U.S. remains the only superpower in the world, and it indeed behaves that way toward the Arabs.
"On the other hand, toward Israel, it behaves as if it had the political weight of Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. I welcome George Bush's decision to convene the conference, but if this effort fails, it will be a deathblow for the process that in any case seems like a farce to many.
"In clinical terms, you could say that instead of stable and sustainable peace, we are witnessing a stable and sustainable peace process." Safieh asks to stress that he has no desire to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel, although he believes that the day is not far off when the Americans will say to Israel that it can no longer take from them only what is convenient, that is, the aid, and reject what is not convenient, the suggestions.
"My message to the American society as a Palestinian diplomat is not 'give up a friend' but 'add a friend.' I don't have a problem with the commitment to Israel's existence; I'm just asking my American friends if you are also committed to Israel's territorial expansion? Do your interests include the Israeli occupation in the territories? For this is it worth it for you to fight with the entire Arab world?
"I'm saying to my American friends that the U.S. is a wonderful society, pluralistic, and a nation of nations. It absorbed eight million Muslims, of them four million who are Arabs and 400,000 Palestinians.
"Too bad many of them feel that the state that adopted them is not sensitive to the tragedy of their homeland. Public opinion polls show that 60 percent of Americans would like to see a more balanced policy toward us.
"Most of them did not support the administration's decision to reject the cease-fire during the Second Lebanon War, and 70 percent support a solution of two states."
As during his long period of service in London, in Washington also, Safieh does not concede the Jewish voice. In February, the Jewish weekly The Forward published a piece that was written by the Palestinian representative in America. Safieh tried to convince Jewish readers not to blindly follow Israeli politicians who are selling them the "there is no Palestinian partner" line.
He wrote that peace and security do not sprout from territorial expansion, but from mutual acceptance.
"For years, the Arab world from Morocco to Muscat has been wiling to recognize Israel's existence if it were to withdraw back to the 1967 borders," argued Safieh. "The Arab-Israeli conflict is not continuing due to an Arab refusal to recognize the existence of Israel, but due to Israel's rejection of the Arab consent."
This mantra was also reiterated, word for word, in the interview with him in Jerusalem.
Safieh tells the joke about the Israeli who is asked if he would like his state to become the 51st American state and responds, "are you crazy? Why should we want to make do with two senators."
After the laughter dies down, Safieh suggests to the Israelis that they also pay attention to the new streams in the Jewish community in the U.S.
"Many of our supporters, individuals and organizations, come from the Jewish community. These are people with a high ethical sensitivity who suffer from Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians. The golden age of AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) is already behind it.
"The lobby's reservations over the Oslo Accords and the lack of enthusiasm on the part of some its leaders over Sharon's disengagement plan, portray it even among Israeli leaders as an organization with extremist positions. In the wake of the spying scandal involving two AIPAC employees, there is a growing sense in Washington that AIPAC is flexing its muscles one time too many."
The Palestinian diplomat is encouraged by the fact that liberal, Jewish organizations, such as Friends of Peace Now, the Justice and Peace Alliance and the Forum for Israeli Policy, are challenging AIPAC's monopoly.
"These organizations' support for an arrangement with the Arabs influences many in the legislature," explains Safieh.
"Jewish partners enable them to proceed in the right direction without turning them into anti-Semites," he adds.
However, Safieh and his small team (four emissaries) must still battle hard on Capitol Hill to convince members of Congress that not every Palestinian is a potential terrorist. Safieh tells of a member of Congress who said at one hearing, "without blushing," that it is doubtful there is such a thing as "a moderate Palestinian."
Sometimes the Palestinian representatives return to their small office with a modest sense of achievement.
So, for example, one year ago, two members of Congress initiated a bill that stipulated that persecution on the part of the Palestinian Authority caused Christian Palestinians to flee from the territories.
It was not hard to explain who and what is choking Palestinian society and economy: the wall imprisoning Bethlehem, Gilo and Har Homa, which was built on land appropriated from the Christian towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour.
In the end, the two withdrew their bill and since then have been considered marginal politicians.
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