An Interview with Palestinian Representative Afif Safieh
By Hugh S Galford
Afif Safieh, who arrived in Washington last October as the new Palestinian representative, describes himself as “an old-fashioned democrat.” Born in East Jerusalem in 1950 Safieh, a Roman Catholic, brings years of diplomatic experience and aplomb to his new post. He has served as PLO representative in the Netherlands from 1987-1990, and London and the Holy See from 1990-2005. Now in the US, with new governments in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Safieh is at the center of the political battles to come.
Safieh is proud of the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections—describing them as “impeccable” and “irreproachable”—despite his regret at their outcome. In voting universally considered free and fair Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, garnered 44 percent of the vote. Given the mix of voting methods--both list (i.e., voting for a party) and first-past-the-post (i.e., voting for an individual candidate, the winner being the one who receives the most votes), Hamas won an outright parliamentary majority of 74 seats out of 132.
Asked if Hamas’ victory came as a surprise to him and to Fatah, Safieh agrees, adding that “the results came as a surprise to the losers and the winners.” Fatah, Safieh said, “defeated itself,” naming three major areas of Palestinians’ discontent. The first is Fatah’s “longevity in power.” From its foundation in 1964, Fatah has been the Palestinians’ sole legitimate representative. After 42 years, this “results in some loss of popularity.” The second area is the perception of Fatah’s corruption. “The reputation for corruption,” Safieh says, “was greater than the reality — which was real and great.” Third, Fatah “is identified with the peace process, which has been non-existent during the last five years, and was unconvincing prior to that. During the period of theoretical peace-making, the occupation of Palestinian land actually increased.”
Safieh notes also that in the five weeks preceding the elections, Fatah lacked unity. “They produced two different lists, with four or five candidates for a single seat, thus splitting their vote.” He says that he expected Fatah’s share of the parliament to shrink, but to remain the dominant party and form a new government with coalition partners.
Safieh’s hopes for the post-election period seem tenuous at best at the moment. “Sovereignty stems from the people, and the Palestinians gave their answer.” His hope, he says, is “that no outside party will take action — relations at the inter-governmental level is how politics is played. I hope that US-Palestinian relations will be warm. That is needed by both sides.”
The US, however, and the European Union, are threatening to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority, and the US has gone further, ordering all contact with the Palestinians to be cut off — whether by US government officials or by US agencies or companies working in the Palestinian territories. This is, in Safieh’s view, absolutely the wrong tactic to use.
“Hamas is not monolithic,” he says. “Even here, there are several schools of thought in the US Republican party, ranging from a more liberal school to the evangelical Christian school.” International relations are carried out “between governments, not parties,” he says. “Others must take Hamas on their pragmatic program.” He notes, for example, that Hamas has rigorously held to a 14-month ceasefire, and has agreed to continue it indefinitely — but that Israel has not reciprocated, and has gone so far as to launch missile strikes on Gaza and to invade the Jericho prison. “I respect Ismail Haniyeh,” the new Hamas Prime Minister, Safieh says. “He is a decent, respectful, open-minded man…though I may not have the same view of some of his colleagues.”