Afif Safieh, who serves as ambassador to the United States for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, greeted an overwhelmingly sympathetic crowd in Monterey Sunday night with this joke: Arriving in heaven, a man asks God, “Will there ever be peace in Palestine?” And God replies: “Yes, but not in my lifetime.”
The joke got a laugh, despite the dark subject, despite the fact that on that very day, Palestinian and Israeli and Lebanese civilians were dying violent deaths, and despite the sad fact that there is no such place as Palestine.
It is difficult and important to remember that Israel is under attack.
I don’t know how many people in the audience caught the reference to this country that does not exist. I’m pretty certain that Safieh meant to make a point by opening his talk with this reference.
Safieh is a captivating speaker—eloquent, intelligent and funny. A lifelong member of the relatively moderate Fatah party and critic of the militant Hamas, and a self-described “enthusiast for peace,” Safieh has been active in Palestinian politics for more than 20 years. A highly educated political scientist (he studied in France), he described the recent history of the Middle East as being marked by “Israeli power and intransigence, European indifference, American self-inflicted impotence, and Arab resignation.”
“I will not conceal from you our belief that we have become the victims of the victims of European history,” he said, without rancor. He called the Palestinian territory “a bleeding wound,” and described Gaza as “an open-air prison” where 1.4 million Palestinians live in poverty and despair.
He described this awful predicament without resorting to pathos, and criticized Israeli policy without venting hostility. And he made a compelling case for a reasonable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict: He called on the United States to bring some balance to its Middle East policy, and he called for “an elegantly imposed solution by the international community.”
This last point, for me, was proof of his commitment to peace. While criticizing Israeli stubbornness, he admitted that the Palestinians themselves were too entrenched in their positions to negotiate a settlement.
It was as cogent a discussion of Middle East politics as I have witnessed. And yet when it was over, I was stuck on one thing Safieh said that left me feeling hopeless.
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Following his moving 30-minute unscripted address, Safieh took questions from the audience. Only one of those questions posed a challenge—a man asked for his position on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who were displaced when the state of Israel was created.
I don’t know how many people in the audience were aware of the importance of that phrase. The right of return was the issue that derailed the best hope for Middle East peace in our lifetimes, at the Camp David negotiations between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. Israel has long refused to recognize this right, believing it would result in the return of so many Palestinans that Israel’s Jewish inhabitants would ultimately be outnumbered.
Israelis see the demand for recognition of the Palestinian right of return as a coded refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The Palestinian ambassador knows this.
Safieh responded to the question with a typically poetic argument.
“Palestians have suffered three successive denials,” he said. “First the denial of our existence—you will recall the phrase ‘A land without people for a people without a land.’ Next the denial of our land. Then the denial of our rights. Apologies are long overdue. And recognition of our rights is long overdue.”
This argument sounds exceedingly reasonable. And yet it represents a kind of intransigence.
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It is hard to feel anything but sympathy for the Palestinian people. And for an increasing number of Americans, it’s hard to do anything but blame Israel for their plight. In recent weeks, as Israeli forces have pursued a military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and against Hezbollah in South Lebanon, the issue has come to be seen in harsher shades of black and white.
It is difficult and important this week to remember that Israel is under attack, that Hamas and Hezbollah have historically waged a terrorist war on Israeli civilians, and that Israel believes—reasonably—that it must fight for its very right to exist. The violence it is waging is excessive and wrong, and yet it is understandable.
After his talk, Safieh was enjoying a smoke outside the Irvine Auditorium, and I asked him to explain his position on the vexing question of the right of return. He declined to moderate his position.
He only proved his bigger point. This problem calls for a solution to be imposed from outside. God himself may have given up, but we cannot.