A lecture hall at Australia’s University of Adelaide, about a month ago. The event: An open discussion between longtime Palestinian diplomat Afif Safieh and the rising Palestinian star Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website.
The mood was charged, very tense; it was an intra-Palestinian clash of ideas — for and against the Palestinian Authority; one state or two, boycotts. It was a personal clash and also a generational confrontation, just as transfixing. The debate raised issues long brewing in Palestinian circles, in the territories and even more so in the diaspora. It is embarrassing to think that Israel hasn’t even begun such discussions. They are sorely needed.
Safieh is a senior Palestinian diplomat. He has served as ambassador to Moscow, Washington, The Hague and London. He sat on Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and was very close to Yasser Arafat, who once sent him to deliver a letter to 25 African leaders. In that pre-email era, he presented the letter to nine of them and gave the rest to ambassadors. He is now a private individual, living in London with his Belgian wife. He visits Ramallah for meetings of the Revolutionary Council.
Abunimah was born and lives in the United States. He knows Barack Obama from Chicago and often appears in the international media.
Abunimah accused Safieh and members of his generation of capitulating to Israel, which made Safieh practically choke with rage. Abunimah appeared via video hookup from Chicago, where it was late at night. Safieh was on stage in Adelaide, squirming in his chair, flailing with anger, occasionally glancing up at the electronic screen above his head. He knows that the man appearing there represents the next generation, but Safieh’s cohort is not yet ready to yield the stage.
Twenty-one years separate them, years of frustration and despair. Both are exiles — articulate and polished, educated and media-savvy, yet an abyss separates them. Safieh is an old-school diplomat, Abunimah is from the social networks. The latter’s generation will pose much more difficult challenges to Israel.
Abunimah said that if you move slowly you’ll achieve nothing, while Safieh said that Israel is so strong that achieving great things is impossible, which is why one must be realistic and struggle for what one can. He recalls that it was his generation that raised the idea of one state, which was subsequently abandoned. “We aren’t able to get to two states, how will we get to one?” Safieh barked at Abunimah, and their mutual contempt was evident.
It was a confrontation between the realpolitik of the previous generation and the revolutionary spirit of its heirs. Between modernity and the electronic struggle and diplomatic messages and the world of old. Between a compromise with Israel (never achieved) and an unwillingness to compromise on anything and to conduct a determined struggle that is unlikely to achieve anything in the near term, but at least exudes a new spirit.
Safieh is an excellent spokesman for his people but the debate demonstrated the total ideological bankruptcy of the PA he represents. Fifty years of occupation and zero achievements is a worthy time to debate what went wrong and whether to adopt a new strategy. It’s doubtful it will bring the Palestinians any accomplishments, however; the continued bickering over two states, the 1967 borders and the peace process is a proven path to a dead end.
Israelis should listen to the new voices. They will get louder. Abunimah is not a terrorist, nor is Safieh, of course; but Abunimah will not compromise with Israel that way Safieh was prepared to and still wants to. Israel has missed the opportunity for compromises. Abunimah wants one state and the right of return; boycotts, divestment and sanctions; the end of Zionism and a halt to racism. On American campuses they listen to him much more readily than to Safieh. The old Palestinian locomotive has reached the end of the line. “And then one track whispered to the other, the king is dead, long live the new king,” (from “Song of the Locomotive” by Arik Lavie). Let’s see how well Israel does with him.
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