WASHINGTON — For many years, pro-Israel activists in the nation’s capital have had it relatively easy, thanks to the failure of the Palestinians to organize an effective lobby or to station an effective spokesman in the United States.
But the fight just got tougher, with the recent appointment of Afif Safieh — one of the sharpest and most eloquent Palestinian representatives in the world — to head the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington.
Unlike his predecessor, Hassan Abdul Rahman, Safieh, 55, is an impressive orator and is already assuming a high public profile in Washington. Safieh is an intellectual who, since the early 1970s, has been weaving in and out of academia and diplomatic service for the PLO. He has held meetings with Bush administration officials and U.S. lawmakers, Arab-American groups, Jewish organizations, think tanks, fellow diplomats and journalists.
Safieh, who recently completed a 15-year stint as the Palestinian representative to the United Kingdom and the Holy See, boasts both scholarly knowledge and a rhetorical knack for producing catchy sound bites. A Palestinian activist recently said that Safieh is “the closest thing we have to Abba Eban,” Israel’s late, erudite, South African-born foreign minister.
Last week, Safieh sent a letter to President Bush, which he signed “your brother in the Christian faith,” wishing the president a merry Christmas “on behalf of the Palestinian people.” Beyond the niceties, the letter complains that “the birth place of Jesus Christ has been totally caged in by the Apartheid Wall” — the security fence that Israel is building in the West Bank. He also complained about Israel’s refusal to facilitate Palestinian legislative elections in East Jerusalem.
During a 45-minute interview at his Washington office, which unlike any diplomatic mission in the nation’s capital has absolutely no security measures in place, Safieh merrily performed intellectual acrobatics: In perfect English with a bouquet of French and Arabic accents, he talked at length about his fascination with the underappreciated contribution to Israeli-Arab peacemaking of Nahum Goldman, former representative of the Jewish Agency in New York and the founder and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress. He analyzed America’s global foreign policy, explained the difference between what is Machiavellian and what is Machiavellic, and discussed Palestinian violent and nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation while approving the final draft of the letter to Bush and chain-smoking six cigarettes.
This level of energy and sophistication can be truly appreciated only when compared with that of Rahman, the PLO’s outgoing chief of mission, who is being rotated to Morocco. Years ago, Rahman seemed to resign himself to a semi-stealth status in Washington. He was not a frequent visitor to the State Department or Congress, rarely appeared in public, and made no significant attempts to reach out to think tanks, campuses, Arab-American groups or Jewish-American organizations. For years, Palestinian activists in Washington have urged Yasser Arafat and other senior PLO officials to send a more active representative to the United States, but to no avail. Only recently, under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, did the Palestinian leadership decide to reshuffle its diplomatic corps and send Safieh to Washington.
Safieh comes to America with a strategy. The Palestinians, he said, already have won the diplomatic and political battle for an independent Palestinian state. A two-state solution has been embraced by the international community as the preferred way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Safieh said. Therefore, he added, “the challenge today — and it is a monumental challenge that calls for Herculean endeavors — is to translate this territorially and geographically” into a reality, with the help of America and its international allies. To that end, Safieh said, he will have to confront the ability of the pro-Israel lobby to “monopolize and deter and dissuade and coerce American politicians in the most undignified manner.”
It is disturbing, he said, that 70 American senators last week signed a letter to Bush, initiated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, calling on the president to “reevaluate all aspects of our relations” with the Palestinian Authority if the Islamic militant group Hamas becomes part of the Palestinian government. At the same time, Safieh said, it is encouraging that 30 senators did not sign.
Among those who did not sign were the Republican chairmen and ranking Democratic members of the two committees — Foreign Relations and Appropriations — that will play the most instrumental role in shaping America’s relations with the P.A.
Safieh was born in Jerusalem to a Christian Arab family but lived most of his life in Europe. He is married to a Belgian national, carries a Belgian passport, and is a familiar face in Europe, where he put an emphasis on working with non-governmental organizations. In America, he plans to do the same. Churches, he said, are of particular importance, as are think tanks, the media, and the Arab and Jewish communities. He intends to pay particular attention to the Palestinian community in America and turn it into “a source of empowerment for the Palestinian vision of the future.”
Safieh already has met with members of two American Jewish groups that strongly support America’s efforts to advance the peace process, the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now, though he managed to ruffle some feathers.
At his meeting with members of the IPF in New York earlier this month, he criticized Israel’s refusal to release Palestinian prisoners, who according to Israel have “blood on their hands.” Safieh said that if Palestinians use the same logic in their relations with Israel, they “would hardly find any Israelis to talk to.” Some IPF members were offended by what they saw as Safieh’s comparing non-combatant Israeli civilians to Palestinian terrorists.
Asked if it was prudent to make such a remark during his first meeting with American Jews, Safieh was unapologetic. “In situations of belligerency, there are fighters on each side,” he told the Forward, “and I don’t accept the Israeli-Jewish approach that there is no moral equivalence and that Jewish blood is more precious than Palestinian blood.”
In his dialogue with the Jewish community, he intends to be direct, Safieh said.
“I am not in the massage business,” he said, “massaging perceptions that I know to be untrue, and cultivating them as such.”
He said that his main message to American Jews will be that as Americans and as friends of Israel, they have both the moral duty and the strategic interest to help in the creation of a prosperous Palestinian state.
“It is the duty of Israelis and Jews who support Israel to help us, and fast,” he said. “The Gaza disengagement has taught us that a territory that was occupied in six days can also be evacuated in six days so that the Israeli side can rest on the seventh and we can engage in the fascinating journey of nation-building and economic recovery.”