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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Afif Safieh, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission to the United States, speaks at Princeton 


Afif Safieh, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission to the United States, spoke at Princeton University Monday afternoon before a standing-room only crowd at the Woodrow Wilson School's Dodds Auditorium. The advertised subject of his talk was "Israel/Palestine: History Is Undecided," and as far as that goes there is no controversy. I sat with Fausta Wurtz, who diligently filed her own report yesterday morning (which include links to transcripts of similar lectures Safieh has given), and later posted a supplemental opinion piece with which I wholeheartedly agree. The Daily Princetonian, which passed for the MSM at this event, also published a story Tuesday morning.

In light of all this other excellent reporting, I'll confine myself to a few observations about things Safieh said, and did not say.

According to the Princeton press release,

Safieh is one of the leading diplomats of Palestine, having represented the Palestinian state in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and now the United States, where he was appointed in 2005 to his post at the PLO Mission in Washington, D.C. The mission serves as the Palestinian embassy in the United States. Notwithstanding "Ambassador" Safieh's history of service to Yassir Arafat, he is apparently revered in settings such as this, and widely considered to be the "most articulate" spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

Among his other notable appointments, Safieh served from 1978 to 1981 as a staff member in the office of Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in Beirut, Lebanon. He also participated in the 1988 historic meetings in Stockholm that paved the way for the U.S. recognition of the PLO.

The University went to great pains to report that Safieh was first invited to speak at Princeton by Abraham Udovitch, "the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East," and that virtually every campus organization joined in the invitation. When Safieh stepped to the podium, the crowd applauded more loudly than I have ever heard at a Princeton lecture. It is, I think, a measure of the chicness of the Palestinian cause on college campuses that a man who joyfully worked for Yassir Arafat for almost twenty years would be received with such warmth and acclaim.

Speaking as he was to an essentially converted audience (there were a few obviously grumpy old townies and a few probably Jewish students who asked edged questions, but they were in the deep minority), Safieh was explicit in his objective -- to influence his audience to campaign for an American foreign policy that would be "non-aligned." True to his billing, Safieh was extremely polished and charming, and spoke as if he were giving a stump speech in a long campaign, a speech he had given many times and that he would give many times again.

I typed as Safieh spoke, but did not come close to producing a transcript. I believe that the blocked quotations below are substantially accurate, but they are not verbatim.

Regarding the election of Hamas:
What happened in the recent PA elections? Fatah defeated itself. First, it had the burden of longevity in power, and people were bored. Second, there was the undeniable fact of corruption. Third, Fatah became identified with the negotiations, the peace process, and the two-state solution. The peace process had been non-existent for six years, and for the six years before that it was weak. Occupation expanded during the period after 1991, not declined, and Fatah paid the price.

Analysts said before the election that while Fatah would diminish, it would still remain in power. Fatah, however, defeated itself because of internal divisions, and because it had not learned to live without Arafat....

The absence of a convincing peace process produced the Hamas victory, not that the Hamas victory is a blow to the peace process. What peace process?

Why didn't analysts wonder if Hamas might be better suited to make peace, much in the same way that "only Nixon could go to China"?

This last bit is something of a straw man, insofar as there were many who hoped that Hamas would become more responsible in office. Even the United States attached two simple condition to dealing with Hamas -- it had to recognize Israel's right to exist and it had to disband its militia, so that the Palestinian Authority would have a monopoly on the internal use of force after an Israeli withdrawal.

On the depredations of the Israelis:
Since the election, Israel has held almost $700 million in taxes that rightfully belong to the Palestinian Authority, which accounts for half its budget. The PA has 165,000 civil servants -- perhaps more than necessary -- and if you consider that the average PA family has 7 people, around 1,00,000 people are dependant on the payment of the civil servant salaries.

There are over 600 checkpoints that stifle the PA economy, but they have "no security value." [Lots of audible tisking.] "Each and every one" is easily bypassable. The Palestinians lost more than 8,000,000 working hours per day from "unnecessary" checkpoints.

There is no direct passage from Gaza to the West Bank, even though Oslo required it, and even though there is a road that could be used but isn't. There is tremendous economic inefficiency by not allowing trade between the two areas. Excess produce in both regions rots, rather than being traded.

Safieh returned repeatedly to the idea that Israel was suffocating the Palestinian economy for unknown perfidious reasons -- if the security checkpoints have "no security value," then why do the Israelis bother with them? Later, Safieh reported as progress that there had been only one suicide bombing attack in 2006, without (of course) giving any credit to the possibility that some of those checkpoints or, Allah forfend, the hated separation fence, might have played a part.

Safieh recounted the various agreements, including particularly the "Sharm el Sheikh understandings," that required Israel to release "political prisoners" in its jails. Safieh claimed that of the more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails for political reasons, more than 9,000 "have no connection with any military action." Again, Safieh did not explain why the Israelis would gratuitously imprison 9,000 people. He correctly assumed his audience would not demand a reasons. In any case, Safieh argued that a mass release of Palestinian "political prisoners" would be a "psychological shock" in the Palestinian community, and create "enormous goodwill" that Claims that an en masse release of the 10,000 political prisoners would create enormous goodwill that would bolster the "pragmatic school of thought."

Notwithstanding the receptivity of his audience, this is how Safieh -- a diplomat -- speaks. There is a "pragmatic school of thought," by which he implies Palestinians who are willing to make peace with Israel at the 1967 border, and the "other school of thought." He does not say what the "other school" is, but we are left to imagine the best or the worst. I imagine that the other school represents total rejection of Israel until the last Palestinian has blown himself up, but maybe I'm just too dark.

Safieh characterized the evolution of the struggle in a nifty two-liner: "Today, we are not witnessing Arab rejection of Israeli existence. We are witnessing Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance. Arab states have made it clear again that if Israel surrenders its 1967 'expansion,' then Arabs will recognize Israel's pre-1967 existence." That is, those Arabs of the "pragmatic school." He did not say what Arabs (and other Muslims) of the "other school" would do.

In any case, Safieh continued, "If we are assured that we will get a territorially contiguous and economically viable Palestinian state, I believe that the Arab world will rally around the solution."

What about Sharon's promise, trapped inside him now, to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, and eventually, perhaps, the West Bank? "Sharon's plan was not a precursor to unilateral withdrawal everywhere, but a means of staving off the demographic threat. [Stratfor characterized it as 'shortening Israel's line of defense' - ed.] By withdrawing unilaterally, Sharon undermined the 'pragmatic school of thought,'" Safieh said, "and allowed the 'other' school of thought to claim that it was the result of military conquest." Safieh did not say what should have been on the mind of everybody present, but which probably was not: There was nobody on the Palestinian side capable of making enforceable concessions to Israel, and therefore nobody for Israel to negotiate with. The thing Safieh will not say, even as he claims that Israel does not deliver on its promises, is that the Palestinians can't deliver on theirs.

For an Arab nationalist, Safieh almost invites foreign domination. He buttered up his audience by saying that when it became clear in 1918-19 that the Palestinian Arabs of that era learned that they would not get independence, but would be ruled by a foreign "mandate," they hoped for an American mandate rather than a British one. About 1967, he expressed "great admiration" for the proposal of Charles deGaulle (he said he had been warned not to express affection for the French, which was rank sucking up, insofar as he was speaking toward a manifestly Francophilic audience). DeGaulle, he said, he suggested that the "four powers" -- the French, the British, the Russians and the Americans -- get together and just tell the Arabs and the Israelis what to do. Until then, I hadn't been aware that Arabs actually wanted Westerners to draw their borders.

During the question and answer session, I regret that I did not get a chance to ask the question helpfully supplied by Robert Spencer, "Why was there no push for a Palestinian state when Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled Gaza, before the 1967 war?" However, Safieh did say, and not say, some interesting things.

One student asked, "If we begin with the premise that it is morally wrong for Israel to kill innocent Lebanese and for a suicide bomber from Gaza to blow up a pizza shop, how do we get Arab leaders to appear on CNN and say that both of those people are wrong, and how do we get leaders of the Arab world to speak out against conferences to such as the Holocaust denial conference in Iran? Would that not build credibility?"

Safieh replied, "I am happy to say that I stand in front of Jewish audiences and condemn all suicide bombings, and am happy to say that in 2006 there was only one, and that one should be condemned. But those who do not condemn Israeli targeted and untargeted assassinations are not morally qualified to condemn suicide bombers." This is a relentless Palestinian theme -- that there is moral equivalence between suicide bombings targeting civilians and Israeli strikes against members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or unintended civilian casualties related to those strikes. This attitude is extraordinarily widespread in the world, as we all saw law summer when the globe's chattering classes weighed the unintended casualties from Israeli strikes far more heavily than the directed casualties from Hezbollah's missiles.

On the matter of Holocaust denial, Safieh noted that the anti-Holocaust conference was "in extremely poor taste," and "I am one who believes that Jews in Europe suffered, and if I were a Jew the Holocaust would be the most horrible event in history." He then made the point that blacks in South Africa might feel that way about aparthied, and Native Americans surely feel that way about the European destruction of their civilization.

Still, Safieh claims to be an optimist, and refused (for both self-serving and, I think, genuinely diplomatic reasons) to rise to baiting questions from either side about who bore the most responsibility for blowing up Oslo. "Let's remain future-oriented, rather than engage in old debates about the Oslo process."

Safieh conceded that resolving jurisdiction over Israel would be extremely difficult, but allowed that it could be run as two capitals respecting three great religions, with Israel's capital in west Jerusalem and the Palestinian capital in the east. He suggested that a small number of foreign troops might be useful (again asking, essentially, for the West to bail out the Arabs).

When asked (very politely by an obviously geriatric Jewish woman) "whether Arafat was at all responsible for walking away from Clinton's deal," Safieh declared that the "history of that needs to be re-written. From what I have read, it was the most chaotic negotiation in the history of diplomacy." The parties only met once, with Clinton shuttling proposals between them for weeks on end, and Safieh does not believe that the two sides understood what they were negotiating over. Clinton's blaming of Arafat after the fact was driven more by concern for his own legacy as it was a duty to history. When another student pointed out that Barak had given up 90% of what the Palestinians had demanded and still Arafat had launched the intifada, Safieh said that the principle was "land for peace," and "90% of the land will not get 100% of the peace." This was a slick throwaway line, but it reveals, in the end, the thinking of the most persuasive diplomat the Palestinians have.

18 Comments:

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Jan 17, 11:43:00 AM:

At the end of the day the Israelis want protection and the sensible Palestinians want a better life.

Here is an outlandish solution: Make Israel and the Palestinian areas America's 51st state (or America's 51st and 52nd state).  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jan 17, 03:43:00 PM:

Worst outlandish solution ever.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Wed Jan 17, 03:46:00 PM:

No more outlandish than one of Tom Clancy's, in which Jack Ryan contrives an occupation by the Papal Swiss Guards who overawe Israeli and Palestinian resistance by their buff physiques and public demonstrations like benchpressing tanks or something along those lines. Old Tom predicted the use of passenger planes as bombs (one hopes without planting a seed for copycat Qaida terrorists) but here his YMCA solution seems fanciful in the extreme.

On a more serious note, I found Safieh's relativist statements about the experience of genocide disturbing. The gist of the remarks you have atributed to him on the holocaust seems to be : "Bad stuff happened to Europes Jews and for them this is the worst thing western imperialism has done, but other folks have also experienced bad stuff at the hands of these external oppressors and they think it is the worst thing too." Far for finding solidarity, this is a bait and switch that deflects criticism away from the atrocities committed by the "oppressed" and plays one genocide off another, diminishing the importance of world condemnation. For how can we respond in moral outrage to any injustice when injustice abounds and who is to say which is the most deplorable? I heard the same language used by apartheid's apologists when I lived in southern Africa, whites who had all seen Dances with Wolves and could list off the many transgressions of their "Western" accussors as if that somehow lessoned their own transgressions.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Wed Jan 17, 03:47:00 PM:

No more outlandish than one of Tom Clancy's, in which Jack Ryan contrives an occupation by the Papal Swiss Guards who overawe Israeli and Palestinian resistance by their buff physiques and public demonstrations like benchpressing tanks or something along those lines. Old Tom predicted the use of passenger planes as bombs (one hopes without planting a seed for copycat Qaida terrorists) but here his YMCA solution seems fanciful in the extreme.

On a more serious note, I found Safieh's relativist statements about the experience of genocide disturbing. The gist of the remarks you have atributed to him on the holocaust seems to be : "Bad stuff happened to Europes Jews and for them this is the worst thing western imperialism has done, but other folks have also experienced bad stuff at the hands of these external oppressors and they think it is the worst thing too." Far for finding solidarity, this is a bait and switch that deflects criticism away from the atrocities committed by the "oppressed" and plays one genocide off another, diminishing the importance of world condemnation. For how can we respond in moral outrage to any injustice when injustice abounds and who is to say which is the most deplorable? I heard the same language used by apartheid's apologists when I lived in southern Africa, whites who had all seen Dances with Wolves and could list off the many transgressions of their "Western" accussors as if that somehow lessoned their own transgressions.  

By Anonymous Howard in Boston, at Wed Jan 17, 04:12:00 PM:

The line about 100% of peace for 90% of the land is a good one rhetorically, but it obscures the obvious problem. 100% of the land also won't bring 100% of the peace.

Israelis rightly believe that a large number of Palestinians won't rest until they get all of the 1948 land - not the 1967 land driving the 90% calculation. The current Palestinian leadership(s) haven't exactly done much to discourage this perception - at least, not when they've been speaking in Arabic to a local audience (as opposed to their diplomats speaking in English to western audiences).

Seeing as the "internationally recognized" borders of Israel constitute 78% of the land west of the Jordan, I believe the best characterization of the actual Palestinian perspective is as follows: "Israelis can get 100% peace for 455% of the [1967] land."  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Jan 17, 04:20:00 PM:

"Worst outlandish solution ever."

Making Israel America's 51st state certainly would create problems for the Iranians. The Iranians probably would not want to nuke an American state.

And, who knows, the Iraqis may want to become an American state, too. That would give the U.S. lots of domestic oil.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jan 17, 04:37:00 PM:

Who knows what these guys really think? As was mentioned by Howard above, they say one thing in English to the (fawning) western audiences, and another to their brother Arabs in Arabic. With years of hateful propaganda against the Jews in Israel, they have hardly prepared the ground for any kind of reconciliation.
Despite pronouncements to the contrary, I think it would be literal suicide for any Palestinian "leader" to reach an accomodation with any Israeli politician (Barak, Olmert, Netanyahu, Sharon, take your pick) over a peace settlement. A reasonable deal would be in the best interests of all involved, but there is too much political investment in the "intifada" mind set to reach a compromise with the "Little Satan". I think Sharon realized this when he "shortened his line of defense" by giving up ground in the West Bank.
This guy, Afif Safieh, might sincerely "mean well" (or not), but the chance of real softening of positions is tragically not going to happen. It's a three-legged stool (Hamas, Fatah and now Hezbollah in the north, Lebanon), which prevents any real comprehensive peace from "breaking out."

-David  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed Jan 17, 07:57:00 PM:

A possible question would be "Can you identify one thing which the Palestinians have done that could be seen as a gesture of peace?"  

By Blogger allen, at Wed Jan 17, 10:18:00 PM:

We Need Not Guess

Note, varying degrees of support for suicide bombing among Lebanese dropped from 82% in 2002 to 58% in July 2005. Could that little dustup between Israel and Hezbollah in the spring have had some impact?  

By Blogger allen, at Wed Jan 17, 10:27:00 PM:

We Need Not Guess

Note, varying degrees of support for suicide bombing among Lebanese dropped from 82% in 2002 to 58% in July 2005. Could that little dustup between Israel and Hezbollah in the spring have had some impact?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Jan 17, 10:37:00 PM:

Was there a dustup with Israel in the spring of 2005? I had forgotten.

The more likely explanation was the inter-Arab bombings in Iraq. Remember, in 2004-2005 those were largely Sunni/al Qaeda attacks against Shiites, and Lebanon has a large Shiite population.

I think they have made a lot of Arabs realize that the suicide bomber can very easily be turned inward.  

By Blogger allen, at Wed Jan 17, 10:55:00 PM:

TigerHawk,

re: dustup

Things could have been so much worse without the Herculean intervention of State in the form of the Franco-American UNSC Resolution 1701. This makes one glad to pay taxes, doesn’t it?  

By Blogger allen, at Wed Jan 17, 11:11:00 PM:

TigerHawk,

On a serious note, it would be comforting to think the violent sectarianism within Islam is susceptible to the introspection you hypothesize. The ongoing massacres inside Iraq, for example, give pause for doubt, however. If what you posit is correct, then, it suggests the Islamic world is incapable of empathy unless savaged by its own demons. That does not bode well, if true.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Thu Jan 18, 02:52:00 AM:

"if I were a Jew the Holocaust would be the most horrible event in history" ... implying that if you are not a Jew then it's no biggie. What a sick bastard.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 18, 05:20:00 PM:

Too often, Israeli/Palestinian debates focus on future agreements that solve "all" problems without regard to figuring out how to build on past incremental successes. I'd love to hear from the Palestinians, especially guys like Afif Safieh, exactly which agreements the Palestinians believe they have fully honored. Then we can build from there.  

By Anonymous Afif Safieh, at Fri Jan 19, 02:13:00 PM:

What I have said in the lecture is
“ I never compare the Palestinian Nakba/ Catastrophe to the Holocaust. Each tragedy stands on its own. I never indulge in comparative martyrology. If I were a Jew or a gypsy, Nazi barbarity would be the most horrible event in History. If I were a Native American it would be the arrival of European settlers that resulted in almost total extermination. If I were a Black African, it would be slavery in previous centuries and Apartheid during the last century. If I were an Armenian, it would be the Ottoman/ Turkish massacres. If I were Palestinian- and I happen to be one- it would be the Nakba. Humanity should condemn all the above. I do not know of a way to measure suffering or how to quantify pain, but what I do know is that we are not children of a lesser God.”
I believe these are not the words of a sick person or of an ethno-centered tribalist, but of a universalist  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Jan 20, 12:14:00 PM:

Bah. He makes a comparison between the existence of Israel and genocides/centuries of slavery so casually and smoothly that no one thinks; "Those aren't the same things at all." Just because they call it a catastrophe doesn't put it on the same level as those other events. Americans thought that the Great Depression was a catastrophe; why don't we compare it to the Holocaust? Oh right, because they are completely and absolutely different.

In its fundamentals, the re-establishment of Israel wasn't all that different from the re-founding of Poland following WWI, with the exception that Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary didn't invade it the day it declared independence.  

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