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Palestinian Representative to U.S. Discusses Hamas-dominated Future

March 3, 2006
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Afif Safieh, the Palestinian representative in Washington, had been on the job only two and a half months when voters in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem overwhelmingly elected Hamas to head the next Palestinian government. The terrorist group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, now controls 74 of 132 seats in Parliament. Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister designate, says his government won’t recognize Israel or engage in peace talks with the Jewish state, despite pleas from the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, to do so.

None of this makes Safieh’s job any easier.

“My assignment is a tough one, in the sense that I have all the duties of an ambassador and more, and I represent a people under occupation, yet I don’t have the privileges,” Safieh told JTA in an interview. “I am proud to be Palestinian, even though I’m not happy with the results” of the election.

“And I’m proud of the manner in which these heavily monitored elections were conducted,” he said.

Unlike the Israeli Embassy on International Drive, which probably has the tightest security of any diplomatic mission in Washington, the Palestinian office just off Dupont Circle has no security at all.

Visitors aren’t questioned or searched before taking the elevator up to the fourth floor of a pleasant-looking office complex. Photographs of the Al-Aksa Mosque and the late Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat decorate the mission, which consists of seven people, including Safieh’s driver and receptionist.

Safieh, a polished 56-year-old intellectual from eastern Jerusalem who has served in Geneva, The Hague and London, would not answer directly when asked whether Hamas might replace him. Nor did he completely discount the possibility that the State Department might close down his mission altogether.

A bill backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and cosponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) would shut down the PLO office. The bill’s sponsors are negotiating its particulars with the administration, and it has yet to be considered by any committee.

“I have difficulties believing that U.S. legislators or the Bush administration would deprive themselves of an authoritative Palestinian voice in Washington,” Safieh said.

“Silencing that voice would be so un-American and so un-Christian” that they would not do it, he added.

As for Hamas itself, Safieh said there’s no single factor that explains the movement’s unexpected victory.

“It was a combination and convergence of factors,” he said. “First of all, I don’t think Hamas won that decisively. Its parliamentary contingent is magnified compared to the percentage of votes it actually received. Although Hamas candidates were the obvious winners, this was not a landslide the way some commentators have made it out to be.”

Safieh said the fact that Fatah was the ruling party for 40 years — first abroad and then back home with the birth of the Palestinian Authority — “resulted in the erosion of its popularity.”

Also, there was the feeling of stagnation and the need for change.

“The perception of corruption and mismanagement was greater than the reality, but that was still a major handicap,” he said.

“The third factor was that Fatah had been identified during the last 15 years with the peace process they advocated and engaged in. That peace process has been totally unconvincing, and with devastating results — such as the expansion of settlements, the continued strangulation of Palestinian society, and the suffocation of the Palestinian economy through 450 checkpoints that prohibit people’s freedom of movement.”

Israel maintains that the checkpoints, often closed after terrorist attacks or due to intelligence of an impending strike, are necessary for security.

He blamed Israel for making it difficult for the Palestinian Authority, “even when it was led by Abu Mazen, who is perceived by the entire world as a democratic leader unambiguously in favor of peace.”

Safieh criticized what he calls “the constant American alignment” on the side of Israel, as well as “European abdication, Arab impotence and Palestinian resignation” over Israel’s moves.

“During those theoretical years of peacemaking, what we really witnessed was not the withdrawal of occupation but the expansion of occupation,” he said, estimating that more than 450,000 Jews now live in the West Bank — twice as many as in 1993, when the Oslo accords were concluded. The CIA estimates that some 187,000 Jews live in the West Bank and fewer than 177,000 Jews live in eastern Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its capital.

Few Israeli leaders were more hated by Palestinians than Ariel Sharon, who won worldwide accolades last year in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Safieh discounts this as “undeserved praise from world leaders suffering from self-inflicted impotence.”

Safieh said his people have been “unreasonably reasonable” in accepting a two-state solution that envisions a future Palestinian state comprising 22 percent of its original territory, perhaps referring to the British Mandate.

Looking ahead to next month’s general elections in Israel, Safieh said he has little doubt that Israel’s interim prime minister, Ehud Olmert, will carry Sharon’s centrist Kadima party to victory. What happens after that depends on Israel’s willingness to deal with Hamas, as well as its determination to remove West Bank settlements, he said.

In the final analysis, suggested Safieh, Israel has a choice: it can be in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, or in the Middle East — but not both.

“The Israelis should remember that we, the Palestinians, are the key to Israel’s regional acceptance. When the peace process was moving smoothly, doors were opening up from Morocco to Muscat. When it was moving roughly, those same doors were closed,” he said.

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