AMBASSADOR AFIF Safieh, head of the PLO Mission to the United States, addressed the topic "Israel/Palestine: History Is Undecided" Jan. 15 at Princeton University. Discussing the Hamas victory in January 2006 parliamentary elections, Safieh maintained that Fatah had succeeded in defeating itself for three reasons: it had been in power too long without a significant change in personnel; the reality of corruption, which he acknowledged was bad enough, plus the exaggerated perception of it; and, above all, Fatah's identification with various peace processes, which by 2006 were unconvincing.
Safieh admitted he doesn't know whether to feel pride or regret for his own role in the Oslo process, which failed to produce the expected results. Instead, he pointed out, the Israeli settler population doubled, Gaza has been completely separated from the West Bank, and the proliferation of Israeli military checkpoints is causing the loss of millions of working hours every day. Hopes were briefly raised in 2005, Safieh recalled, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with President Mahmoud Abbas at Sharm al-Sheikh and agreed that Israel would withdraw from Palestinian urban centers and effect a massive release of Palestinian political prisoners. Instead, however, Israel announced it would leave only Jericho, and arrested many more prisoners than it released. According to Safieh, 9,000 of the approximately 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners currently held in Israeli jails have never engaged in violent activity. It would be "a good shock," he said, if Israel fulfilled its promise.
Nobody assumed that Sharon's disengagement from Gaza represented a first step, Safieh continued. Rather it was a partial solution to Israel's perceived demographic problem: by giving up 1.3 percent of geographic Palestine, the Jewish state got rid of 1.4 million Palestinians. In any case, he stated, Israel continues to surround Gaza, with Palestinians forbidden to fly or fish. And while the whole world saw the "pain" of 8,000 settlers being removed, Israel added 30,000 more settlers in the West Bank. Moreover, Safieh argued, by withdrawing unilaterally Israel allowed militants to claim they drove Israel out.
And so Hamas won in legitimate elections. In a democracy, Safieh declared, winners and losers must behave with dignity, because the last election is not the final one. But in Washington the next day, "all hell broke loose." Rather than recognizing that the failure of the peace process contributed to Hamas' success, the Palestinian diplomat noted, the Bush administration called the election of Hamas a "block to the peace process." Wondering why Washington didn't apply the logic of "only Nixon in China" and "only Sharon can evacuate Gaza" to Hamas, Safieh expressed regret that this administration never gave Hamas a chance, and said he considers providing U.S. money and arms to Fatah unwise.
Because of Arabophobia on Capitol Hill, said Safieh, who is a Christian, the U.S. halted aid to Palestine and even subtracted from its U.N. contributions what the U.N. spends on Palestine. Since the Paris protocols, he explained, Israel has collected taxes on behalf of the Palestinians and transferred it monthly-minus 3 percent in administrative fees. The amount is half the Palestinian Authority's operating budget and supplies the salaries for 25 percent of the population. After the election, Israel completely stopped the transfer of funds, which by now total more than $700 million. That, combined with the loss of foreign aid, has resulted in the Palestinian infrastructure being on the verge of collapse.
For the first time in Israel's history, Safieh observed, its leaders are not war heroes and, following the Lebanon blunder, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Amir Peretz have very low approval ratings. Because a weak opponent is not the most comfortable situation for the oppressed, Safieh said he favored a visible, strong …