March 5, 2008

Palestinian envoy blames Israel, chides Hamas but says two-state solution is still possible

Sixty years after the creation of the State of Israel, Palestinians are now the "Jews of the Israelis," said Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the United States since 2005. He was speaking to a crowded Statler Auditorium, March 4.

To change the Palestinians' status he advocated a "popular nonviolent resistance" of Palestinians against Israel. He predicted that most Arab states would accept Israel if it "curbed its territorial appetite" and returned to its pre-1967 borders. The current round of turmoil and bloodshed, involving rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas-led Gaza and an Israeli military assault on Gaza, is propelled by Israeli intransigence, he claimed.

With peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians now suspended, he sees the future of the Palestinians as dependent on U.S. and other foreign intervention. "I believe that the two-state solution is the way out," he said.

Safieh, who was introduced by Cornell President David Skorton, was speaking as the guest of several academic groups on campus. A Roman Catholic, he was born in Jerusalem and educated in Belgium and France.

He reminded his audience that when Mahmoud Abbas was elected chairman of the Palestinian National Authority in 2005, he advocated a two-state solution and the demilitarization of the Palestinians in occupied territories. "Then why didn't we achieve peace then," he asked. Because, he said, Abbas' administration immediately met with setbacks when Israel failed to follow through on agreements that it would withdraw from West Bank urban centers and release large numbers of Palestinian political prisoners.

Even when then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, "He ... had no interest in keeping the headache of Gaza," said Safieh, "and in one shot wanted to get rid of 1.4 million Palestinians." Sharon's failure to negotiate, he said, "deprived the pragmatic school to which I belong to, to be capable of saying to our public that the Israeli withdrawal out of Gaza is one of the dividends of the peace process."

Although Sharon forced 8,000 Jewish settlers to leave Gaza, Safieh pointed to the subsequent arrival of "50,000 illegal settlers" in the West Bank.

The January 2006 Palestinian elections put the militant Islamic Hamas party in power with 44 percent of the vote. "I have no ideological affinity with Hamas," Safieh said. "I am a proud secular Christian. Theologically, I sometimes have doubts, but also have doubts about my doubts ... but Hamas should not be demonized. Hamas is not a monolithic movement. It has within its ranks a pragmatic modernist wing that should be encouraged, cultivated and tested."

Safieh said his party, Fatah, lost power because it had been in charge since 1968, was alleged to be corrupt and was damned by its association with the peace process that yielded few tangible results for his people. Abbas remained president of a "bipolar" Palestinian government entity that, for Safieh to represent, required more acrobatics than diplomacy.

Hamas, he said bluntly, "shoots itself in the foot" by advocating a one-state solution that results in something of a three-state situation -- Israel, Gaza and the West Bank -- "and the Israelis are not unhappy that we have two geographic entities that are of different political orientations ... Hamas should be pressured and persuaded into rethinking."

But Safieh said he welcomes third-party intervention. "It's here in America that we will win or lose our battle for Palestinian statehood. ... We the Palestinians are the key not only for America's credibility but for its lovability around the world."

Safieh's talk was sponsored by Dialogue, the Departments of Near Eastern Studies, Communication and Government, the Division of University Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Student and Academic Services, the Bartels family, the Einaudi Center, Alice Cook House and Carl Becker House.