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Afif Safieh

The Unreasonably Reasonable Ambassador*

By Diana and Randa Safieh

We still remember our father’s excitement after his first visit home in December 1993, after 27 years of exile. Afif Safieh applied for family reunification in Jerusalem and was earnestly planning to launch an English weekly magazine – The Palestinian – with the double objective of helping to reawaken a dormant Jerusalem and maintaining its centrality in Palestinian society and politics. He viewed this magazine as independent and “open to respectable loyalism and responsible criticism”; a forum for dialogue among Palestinians “of the inside” and those of the diaspora, and a platform for interaction with Israeli society.Two months later, the “nyet” arrived in a letter consisting of one and a half lines in Hebrew. Already by then, his disenchantment with the peace process was proportionate to his previous enthusiasm.Our father was born in 1950 in East Jerusalem to a family who had lived in Upper Baqa’a, West Jerusalem, prior to 1948. He graduated from the Frères College in 1966 at 16, having skipped a year of schooling. He and his brother Hanna were at university in Belgium when the 1967 War broke out and were trapped abroad as a result. When East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, and a demographic census was conducted, they both became “legally nonexistent.” When they became more politically involved, they were blacklisted. Our grandfather, Emile Safieh, lamented that period of time, “In 1948, we lost our homeland. In 1967, we lost our children.”
(“في ال 48 ضيعنا بلادنا وفي ال 67 ضيعنا ولادنا”)Our father has always taken pride in the fact that he was the only Palestinian to preside over two different branches of the General Union of Palestinian Students; first in Belgium (1969–1971), then in France (1974–1975), during the golden age of the student movement.

With Faisal Husseini in the Netherlands in 1989.

A close aide to the late President Yasser Arafat, and fluent in both English and French, Afif Safieh was often deployed as “presidential envoy,” carrying personal letters to African heads of state. He thus had extensive discussions with the founding fathers of post-colonial Africa: Léopold Senghor, and then Abdu Diouf of Senegal; Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast; Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea-Conakry; and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

With Jean-Paul II at the Vatican in 1980.

At the end of the 1980s, when it was still forbidden for Israelis to meet with PLO officials outside of an academic forum, every university and think tank wanted to organize an Israeli-Palestinian conference. Safieh, along with Nabil Sha’ath, Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, and Sari Nusseibeh, would hop from capital to capital to participate in these encounters. His message to his Israeli counterparts was: “We are in a situation of unavoidable, yet very unhappy, coexistence. Both societies would prefer to have the Norwegians as their immediate neighbors, but such a scenario is not on offer.”

In London in the 1990s with Yasser Arafat, his wife
Christ’l Safieh, and the authors Diana and Randa.

Yet, he was not a “comfortable” interlocutor. Concerning the ethnic cleansing in 1948, he would repeatedly state, “It was the Zionist left – the Haganah and the Palmach – mainly recruited in the kibbutz network, that made Palestine unlivable for us Palestinians in 1948. What Likud does now is make Israel unlivable for many Jews.” Prophetic words, even more relevant today.

On the issue of democracy, he asserted, “Israel is a democracy for the Jewish component of society. This is not an extenuating factor, making Israel more loveable, but an aggravating factor, demonstrating that the oppression inflicted on the Palestinian people enjoys the democratic and informed consent and support of society.”

Both in Europe and the United States, Safieh has devoted much time to dialoguing with Jewish circles. In the mid-1990s, he was invited by the Jewish program on Spectrum Radio to debate with Rabbi Boteach, who had just won the award in London for Preacher of the Year. When Boteach continually invoked God, the Bible, Hitler, and the Holocaust, Safieh reacted calmly, “But in our case, you are our Germans, and we are your Jews.” Immediately after the program, the producers conducted a poll amongst the listeners – mainly a Jewish audience – on who had won the debate, and the result was massively unfavorable towards Boteach.

Afif with his sister Diana, the Jerusalemite anchor of the family, which is now dispersed on three continents.

Safieh, a universalist, is not inclined towards “comparative martyrology.” In a letter published in The Jewish Chronicle, Safieh wrote, “Each tragedy stands on its own. I do not know any way to measure pain and to quantify suffering. If I were a Jew or a Gypsy, Nazi atrocities would be the most abominable event in history. If I were a Native American, it would be the arrival of European Settlers, resulting in almost total extermination. If I were a Black African, it would be slavery in previous centuries, and apartheid in this century. If I were an Armenian, it would be the Ottoman massacres. And if I happen to be a Palestinian, it would be the Nakba. Humanity should consider all the above unacceptable, inadmissible.”

Safieh constantly called for the need to release the thousands of Palestinian prisoners within the framework of the peace process. To those who objected on the grounds that “We cannot release those with Jewish blood on their hands,” he would respond, “With that criteria, I would have problems finding Israeli hands to shake.”

He has been a frequent guest on all major TV networks. On the eve of the Iraqi military conflagration of 1991, and in a tense interview with Sir David Frost on the BBC, Safieh calmly responded, “You have seen Yasser Arafat kiss the cheek of Saddam Hussein, but you did not wonder what he was whispering in his ear.” Later that year, commenting live on Sky TV on the Madrid Conference, where then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir emphasized “Israel’s hunger for peace,” Safieh countered, “We can satisfy Israel’s hunger for peace if it abandons its appetite for territory.”

Safieh has lived and worked most of his life in Europe. He is known to have cheekily remarked, “If the Oslo Process has not put Palestine fully on the map, it has put Norway on the map,” recognizing how Norway had played a role beyond its geographic size or demographic weight. To his many European interlocutors who were resigned to be “payers, not players,” he would repeatedly observe, “Europe is still an actor in search of a role. We in the Middle East have a role in search of an actor. If we could merge the two, we could all live less unhappily ever after.”

Revolted by the constant abdication of responsibility, which he terms “the self-inflicted impotence of the international community,” Safieh believes that Israel/Palestine, for Western politicians, is “a test between political courage and moral cowardice.”

Now in his retirement, Safieh recalls a sad joke – a reflection of reality – which he has recounted on the lecture circuit: “When God was asked about the possibility of peace in the Holy Land, he answered melancholically, ‘Yes, yes, of course, but not during my lifetime.’” Safieh, in his inimitable way, then adds, “I do not believe God would mind if proven wrong. At least on this one.”

*Article based on an interview conducted in June 2023.

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