March 5, 2008

PLO Ambassador Discusses Prospects for Middle East

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Statler Auditorium was at its 750-person capacity yesterday evening as the Palestinian Liberation Organization representative to the U.S. Afif Safieh engaged the audience in a discussion of Palestine’s perspective on the Middle East conflicts.
“The challenge in the Middle East is that we either have one people too many — this time, we the Palestinians — or we have a state which is missing and needs to be created,” Safieh said. “The verdict of the international community has been for three decades that there isn’t a people too many, there is a state missing. But the verdict of history is still undecided.”
In an interview with The Sun prior to the lecture, Safieh commented on his personal views of the volatile nature of Palestine’s existence.
“I never belonged to the optimistic school of thought that promises victory for the oppressed as a sort of predetermined outcome. Unfortunately, history is a cemetery of oppressed people who remained oppressed until they vanished into historical oblivion,” Safieh said. “Israel was supposed to be the answer to the Jewish question. As a result, we the Palestinians have become ourselves a question awaiting a convenient and equitable answer, and in a way we have become the Jews of the Jews.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a new one, and since Israel’s creation, tensions have mounted and ebbed in a seemingly unending flow. Safieh stated that the end of this tide might only be possible through external intervention, in particular American intervention.
“The major flaw of the last 17 years of attempts was that too much was left to local actors to sort out. I believe in the role of third parties … I believe in the decisive nature of American diplomacy, and that is the necessary locomotive to bring solutions to the region,” Safieh said.
The peace talks are at a standstill, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice currently in the region attempting to salvage the discussions following a violent exchange of over 200 rockets in the last week, according to The New York Times.
However, according to Safieh, the new developments are not the cause of the impeded peace process.
“It’s not the recent escalation of violence that has torpedoed the peace process. The peace process never really took off the ground after Annapolis,” Safieh said, referring to the Annapolis Peace Talks, which ended with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stating that he was not bound by the time limit set by the discussions.
[img_assist|nid=28538|title=Vision for the future|desc=PLO Ambassador to the U.S. Afif Safieh addresses the current issues in Palestine and peace in the Middle East yesterday in Statler Auditorium.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“Ehud Olmert, before he left America, announced that he was not bound by the year 2008 to finalize talks, and upon arrival in Jerusalem, the decision of accelerating Israeli settlement in the region was made, defiling international will and international law,” Safieh said. “That was the major impediment to the peace process, being retriggered after Annapolis. The escalation of violence was the symptom, but not the cause.”
Safieh commented that Israel’s expansions might not be what the U.S. expected to occur in the region when it aided in the creation of Israel.
“The impediment to peace has not been terrorism, which I have consistently condemned, but territory — the Israeli territorial appetite. America is known to be committed to Israel’s existence, but is America committed to Israel’s expansion? I don’t think so,” Safieh said.
He provided the hilltops of the West Bank as evidence of Israel’s divergence from American interests.
“I believe that in Israel there is a vibrant debate on the wisdom and sagacity on keeping the hilltops of the West Bank. But what is America’s interest in Israel keeping the hilltops of the West Bank? None,” Safieh said. “I believe that in American public opinion, but also among decision makers, there is this growing awareness that what has poisoned international relations in the last two decades was the unresolved problem of Palestine and the perceived American alignment on Israeli policy and preference.”
Safieh focused his solution to the escalated situation on the necessity for U.S. involvement in the region, commenting that American involvement will have benefits for everyone involved.
“We are all concerned — there are no more local conflicts. We live in a shrinking world, a global village, where there is no more regional conflict that leaves us unaffected. We live in an interdependent world … The Palestinians are the key for American credibility, respectability, and I dare even say, American lovability around the world,” Safieh said.
To Safieh, Arab acceptance and recognition of Israel is, in theory, a simple matter.
“The perpetuation of the conflict is not due to Arab rejection of the Israeli existence, but Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance,” Safieh said. “The entire Arab world from Morocco on the Atlantic to Oman on the Indian Ocean, is ready for a historical compromise that revolves around the idea that if Israel withdraws from its 1967 expansion, the Arab world will recognize its existence.”
A central issue within the peace process has been the control of Jerusalem.
According to Safieh, “If the problem of Jerusalem remains unresolved, it will become the reason or the pretext for a global clash of civilizations.”
Safieh outlined the problem for listeners, and supplied a solution that was based upon the division of Jerusalem.
“In Jerusalem there are two national aspirations that need to be satisfied, and three religious rights need to be respected. I fully share and endorse that international consensus,” Safieh said. “Unfortunately, the Israeli side believes in a monopoly, a hegemony and exclusivity, and they believe that among the three monotheistic religions there is a hierarchy that I don’t share. I believe in equality, and I believe Jerusalem should be shared, and tomorrow West Jerusalem can be the recognized capital of the Israeli state, and East Jerusalem can be the recognized capital of the Palestinian state.”
Safieh stressed that the control of the religious sites would be left to the respective religions, with no state involvement.
“The city can remain undivided — I use the liberty of the word ‘undivided’ not ‘united,’ because the word ‘united’ was perverted by the Israeli annexations. Each religious site should be managed by the relevant religious community without interference of the state.”
His comments were not met without resistance, but the discussion session was marked with a level of uncensored discussion that seemed to impress students.
“He wasn’t afraid of things that were obviously controversial and could have offended people. Hanan Ashrawi was very careful about what she said, so as not to offend. He is not afraid to say things that will piss people off,” said Nora Chouieri ’10, a Sun columnist.
President Skorton was the moderator of the discussion, and he commented on Safieh’s respect of those who questioned his stances, as well as his respect of the situation.
“He was respectful of the questions … I think it’s important that he recognized the complexity of the situation, and started his talk with some criticism of his own party.” Skorton said following the lecture. “It’s a very complicated situation, which is depressing, that after decades of military and diplomatic interventions that we are still in the situation we are now. I don’t agree with all the things that he said, but that’s okay — that wasn’t the point of the presentation. The point was to bring out a certain point of view, and I was appreciative of the fact that he was respectful and allowed the debate to continue.”
Safieh closed the debate with a request to the audience to aid Palestine, and thus help stabilize the region by seeking third party involvement.
“Every possible country, culture, continent and civilization is represented in your ranks — this gives you added responsibility. It is here in America that we will win or lose our battle for a Palestinian state. I believe our cry for freedom from captivity and bondage will be heard in America,” Safieh said. “I am privileged today to be speaking at Cornell University where some of the brightest and the best students will be tomorrow taking on responsibilities in their respective fields and communities. You can help history make the right choice.”