Thursday, July 27, 2006
Last December Ambassador Afif Safieh, new on the job as chief Palestinian representative to the US, sent President Bush a Christmas card with a flourish that most Middle Eastern diplomats couldn’t make. He signed it: “your brother in the Christian faith.”
Every cause needs a spokesperson, preferably one the intended audience can relate to, and in Safieh the Palestinians have struck diplomatic gold. Raised Catholic in East Jerusalem, where the tiny Palestinian Christian minority is divided between a dozen Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant sects, the French-educated Safieh is also eloquent and moderate. Resembling an older, more worried Benicio del Toro in an Italian suit, he easily vanquishes the stereotype of the black-hooded Palestinian militant.
Safieh is taking his show beyond Washington, where the US government has once again, for the fourth time in 20 years, threatened to shutter the Palestinian mission. (Since Palestine is not a nation, it cannot have an embassy, so the Palestine Liberation Organization has a lower-status, bare-bones office instead.) The problem this time is Hamas’ parliamentary victory; closing the mission would send a strong signal of US disapproval.
Safieh is busily working the grassroots circuit, reaching out to American civil society where support for a Palestinian state is easier to come by.
“America is not a country; it is a continent, and there are several centers of gravity,” he said last week, speaking by phone from Washington in advance of his whirlwind tour of the Bay Area, which brings him to Monterey on Sunday.
“My main message is the following: I always say history is undecided, and I have never belonged to the optimistic school of thought that promises victory and salvation to the oppressed as a sort of predetermined outcome,” he said. “There is no predetermined outcome. History is a cemetery of oppressed people who remained oppressed until they vanished into historical oblivion. Today, history is undecided if in the Middle East there is one people too many”—the Palestinians—“or one state too few.”
It’s the famous Safieh eloquence, honed over 15 years as a diplomat in London and the Holy See. In appointing him to the top job in Washington last October, President Mahmoud Abbas was hoping it would work here too.
It has cheered up the Palestinian-American community to have Safieh as their man in Washington, says Toney Salameh, owner of Anton & Michel in Carmel and a childhood friend of Safieh from East Jerusalem. “His predecessor’s command of English was not great,” says Salameh. “Anytime there was an interview on CNN and there was an Israeli counterpart, he lost control of the debate. In the Middle East, people are hotheaded and temperamental in debate, and in this country you need to be calm.”
The Palestinians needed Safieh, Salameh says, to be the moderate voice of Palestinians on Capitol Hill and in the White House. He has high hopes for his old friend, in spite of the war in Lebanon and the July 27 Israeli incursion into Gaza. “I think Afif’s going to do a lot of good,” he says.
SAFIEH will speak at 6:30pm Sunday, July 30 at the Miis Irvine Auditorium, 499 Pierce St., Monterey. the event is free and will be followed by a benefit reception for humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.