The Peace Process: From Breakthrough to Breakdown

A diplomat who helped make the PLO a credible partner for peace in international eyes offers his verdict on the process

By David Goldberg, October 26, 2010
Pedalling peace to the press: Afif Safieh in Downing Street in 1993

Pedalling peace to the press: Afif Safieh in Downing Street in 1993

By Afif Safieh
Saqi, £16.99

Afif Safieh was Palestinian Head of Mission in London from 1990 – 2005. Subsequently, he has served in Washington - where among George Bush and his (frequently Jewish) neo-cons it must have seemed less like a promotion than a punishment - and Moscow. He is warm, witty, cultured and highly intelligent, multilingual in his eloquent advocacy of the Palestinian cause.

This is a selection of Safieh's lectures, talks and articles, from a 1981 interview in a Belgian journal to his farewell speech at Chatham House in 2005. In it, he mentioned June Jacobs and me as two of the personal friends he and his wife had made among the Jewish community during his time here.

Certainly he opened up more lines of positive communication with Jewish contacts than all the other Arab diplomats combined. He was similarly successful in helping to upgrade the PLO from virtual pariah status to diplomatic respectability and accreditation.

It was hardly a propitious time when Safieh arrived; Yasir Arafat was spectacularly backing the wrong horse over Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. It took tact, patience and skill, exemplified by his evidence before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in April 1991 (reproduced here in full), to modify negative perceptions. Nowadays, it is the pro-Israeli, not the pro-Palestinian lobby, that is on the defensive.

Safieh is disheartened that original breakthrough with the 1993 Oslo Accords has degenerated into current breakdown. In his words: "Instead of a durable peace, it is the process that became permanent -a succession of spectacular non-events."

He cites six key reasons for the impasse. The Palestinian dispossession of 1948 was not a frozen moment in history but is an ongoing process; the aim of successive Israeli governments has been to acquire the maximum Palestinian geography with the minimum Palestinian demography; during the years of supposed peacemaking, we witnessed not Israeli withdrawal but the expansion of occupation through illegal settlement; with ceasefires holding in both the West Bank and Gaza, it is territory not terrorism that is the obstacle to peace; the Arab states' peace initiative has been on the table since 2002, so the deadlock is due not to an Arab rejection of Israel's existence but to Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance; finally, because of its self-imposed timorousness in dealing with Israel, the USA acts with all the political clout of a Lichtenstein.

Safieh believes the only answer is an elegantly imposed, mutually unacceptable solution, because "the concept of mutual unacceptability carries more potential than the eternal and elusive search for mutual acceptability by two unequal negotiating partners left to themselves to sort it out." It is hard to disagree greatly with his analysis.

David J Goldberg is the author of ‘To The Promised Land’ (Faber Finds)

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011