Palestinian Ambassador Afif Safieh at OXCIS
Palestinian-Israeli Relations: History is Still Undecided

Dr. Mozammel Haque

American President Donald Trump announced in December 2017 he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordering the US embassy transfer, reversing decades of U.S. and international policy and enraging the Arab world and many allies. Since that announcement, there were protests all over the world as well as protests and demonstration by the Palestinians. Here in the United Kingdom, besides the meetings and seminars, there were two main meetings in the month of February: one in the British Parliament and another in the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford, Oxford.


A debate on Palestinian Children and the Israeli Military Detention took place in the British Parliament under Graham Stringer, M.P. in the chair on 7th of February 2018. This debate was moved by Sarah Champion, Labour Member of the British Parliament from Rotherham and the House has considered military detention of Palestinian children by Israeli Authorities.


Another lecture on Palestine/Israel: History is Undecided was held by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OXCIS), University of Oxford, on 15 February 2018 at the Centre’s Jerusalem Room. The lecture was delivered by Palestinian diplomat Afif Safieh, the former Ambassador of Palestine in London, UK and Washington, DC, USA. He was most recently the Palestinian Ambassador to the Russian Federation.


Palestine/Israel: History is Undecided at OXCIS

This is the second time Palestinian Ambassador was invited to give a lecture on Palestinian-Israeli Relationships to this prestigious centre of the Oxford University. Ambassador gave a detailed account of the Palestinian-Israeli Relations for the last 70 years.


History is cemetery of oppressed people

Ambassador Afif said that history is a cemetery of oppressed people. He said, “I never belonged to the optimistic school of thought that believe in predetermination and that the oppressed inevitably will become victorious. I believe Alas that history is a cemetery for oppressed people who remain oppressed until they vanished to the historical oppression. And I believe that as far as we are concerned, we, the Palestinians, today the more political challenge and dilemma in the Middle East we either have one people too many Palestinians, we the Palestinians or we have this state which we seek. The international community answered has been repeatedly by the UN for the last fifty years that there is a state missing that needs to be created. But unfortunately Alas history is undecided. And I appeal to you collectively and individually to help history make the right choice.”


Historical denials

Ambassador Afif mentioned about historical denials. He said, “I believe that denials, the historical denials, are abominable; holocaust denials, of course, and I want to draw your attention to Palestinians who have been subjected to three successive denials. First came the denial of our mere physical existence; or remember the slogan Palestine is a land with no people over it and our mere physical existence; and the second denial was the denial of the history of our rights and the third denial was the acknowledgement of the historical wrong or the harm the injustice that was inflicted. How often we, the Palestinians, listened that we should be grateful that Zionism came to Palestine. How often our suffering has been penalised tribalised and many have told us thus compared to the other sufferings yours is benign and trifle. And how often we had to hear about the trees that were planted, the forests that were planted without anybody feeling the need to explain how the uprooting of the human being is justified by the planting of a tree; that the uprooting of an entire people justified by the planting of the forest.”


Nakba or ethnic cleansing of 1948

Ambassador Afif said he never believes in the hierarchy of sufferings or no way of measuring pain or quantify the sufferings. He mentioned, “If I were a Jew or a gipsy Nazi barbarity holocaust would be the most horrible event in the history of mankind. If I were Native Americans, it would be the arrival of the early European settlers resulted in the almost total extermination. Had I been a black African it would be slavery in the nineteenth century or apartheid in the last century and if I have to be a Palestinian and I happen to be a Palestinian it would be the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of 1948, which resulted in the dispossession and dispersion and oppression of an entire people.”


“History is undecided and we need to help history make the right choice. It is interesting that in the Israeli Palestinian relationship the oppressor hates the victim much more than the victim hates the oppressor. And it is interesting to note that the oppressed have moved faster beyond mutual negation than the mutual recognition and I believe neither Palestinians have throughout our years of political itinerary have moved beyond asking for absolute justice and we are only asking for possible justice. We have been what I have called unreasonably reasonable; and I believe that we have offered those who chose to be our enemies several proposals that up to now have been rejected,” former Palestinian ambassador mentioned.  


Several proposals rejected

Ambassador Afif mentioned of the several proposals offered by the Palestinians. He said, “The first proposal emanated in the  late 60s and I grew up politically with that proposal which was for the future we aspire for unitary, democratic state that would be bi-cultural pluri-ethnical multi-confessional democratic world where Jews, Christians, Muslims and others will have equal rights and equal obligations. This is the idea; this is the principle with which I personally grew up with.”


“We might have been naïve but that idea inspired an entire generation of Palestinian people, Palestinian leaders and we knew that to achieve this we needed two things to happen; we needed either a decisive military victory, or we needed to convert, persuade and seduce a majority of the Jewish community establishment when there was never a decisive military victory. At best October war 1973 can be described as a military with and then I am speaking of the late 60’s early 70’s,” said Palestinian ambassador.


Turning point – October 1973

Ambassador Afif said, “I think the October 1973 for me has been a turning point and demarcation line in the regional history and in the political strategic thinking of that region. It’s then the Arabs including us, the Palestinians, we became aware that there is no military solution to that conflict and that there would be no military victory and that the Americans will never allow Israel to be defeated. Those of us who were young people or old enough remember how in 1973 the Americans organised air bridge of planes carrying tanks and tins landing in the Sinai and immediately getting engaged in the battle. So we understood that there is no military solution to the conflict. And that we should stick in a diplomatic avenue towards conflict resolution and from then onwards gradually we, the Palestinians started adopting resolutions about the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel the two state solutions along the 1967 boundaries.”


Peace Process for Two state solutions

along the 1967 boundaries.

Then the former Palestinian ambassador gave the details of the peace process which started after the Iraq war 1991. He mentioned, “As you know the peace process that is so much spoken about started after the Iraq war 1991 with a conference convened in Madrid in the presence of Bush father and I think Mikhail Gorbachev in his last months and continued the discussion in Washington where it stagnated the talks. Parallel to that there was back channel of Oslo and I have joked often with my Norwegian friends by telling them if the Oslo back-channelled has not yet put Palestine fully on the map it has put Norway on the map.”


“that peace process of Madrid started in 1991 the Oslo back-channelled was in 1993; the ideas that inspired both exercises were that the peace we are all looking for would be based on land in exchange for peace and I personally believe that roads of the being was quite that it will end up after a transitional period of five years with a Palestinian state being created in four years and recognised. And today more than twenty five years after and I always say the way it was handled and choreographed we ended having endurable process instead of lasting permanent peace,” lamented Ambassador Afif.


In this connection, former Palestinian ambassador mentioned the role of French President De Gaulle. He said, “De Gaulle after 1967 had a press conference where he announced concerning the Middle East Crisis that he appealed and court for what he called then meaning the coordination of major four powers – popular china was not yet in the Security Council and then all observers used to consider the Americans and the British as closer to the Israeli position and France and the Soviet Union as closer to the Arabs. And the way the whole thought of this idea was: those four major powers would meet besides on the contents and the contours of the peace desirable as possible and sent an unequivocal messages to the local belligerent actors of what the international community expect from them.”


He said, “Unfortunately the idea was never ready off the ground. I think at best the permanent representative in New York met a couple of times and spent for the simple reason then in 1967 the American administration was not unhappy with the Israeli military victory compensated  the humiliation of Vietnam. The British was unenthusiastic simply because the idea was French to begin with and since then the ladies and gentleman we had a durable process instead of lasting permanent peace.”


25 years of theoretical peace making

Coming back to the present day situation, Ambassador Afif said, “Today how can one describe my friends the situation after 25 years of theoretical peace making. The first point is (i) that for us, Palestinians, the Nakba, the catastrophe is not a frozen moment that has happened sometimes in 1948. Alas and unfortunately, it is still an on-going process until today. (ii) The 25 years of theoretical peace making did not result really in Israeli withdrawals; it resulted in the expansion of occupation through the elastic growth of the settlements. (iii) The constant policy of the Israeli successive governments, left, right or centre is how to acquire as much of Palestinian geography as much as possible, with as little as Palestinian demography as possible.”


“(iv) Today, years after the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative one should admit and say that if we have a diplomatic impulse it’s not because of Arabs rejection of the Israeli existence; it’s because of the Israeli rejection of Arabs acceptance; because of the territorial prerequisite which is withdrawal. (v) All throughout those years, we the Palestinians, we the Arabs had always hoped that America, the U.S.A. would be more even-handed than it has proven to be and we have all waited for the Eisenhower moment; for us who are young enough or old enough having glimpse or read about Eisenhower in 1956 after what we consider to be the tripartite aggression against Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Sinai. During the American Presidential elections year Eisenhower with one phone call to Ben Gorian had the Israeli immediately withdraw back to the international frontiers and by the way Netanyahu, Sharon compared to Ben Gorian looks like a lamb. He was a roaring lion of Israeli on the phone call from Eisenhower,” mentioned Ambassador Afif.


“We the Arabs have been waiting for an Eisenhower moment where the American administration bearing in minds their interest and their responsibility and the international law they would make that phone call and tell the Israeli withdrawals. Alas, that never occurred; there we have stuck? Stuck among other things; because we have a Trump administration who is no more respecting American foreign policy and the principles that have made; the American foreign policy he made his decision concerning Jerusalem recognising as the capital of Israeli and announcing very soon the transfer of the embassy. And tell you frankly; we the Palestinians are no more ready to go into a peace process where the Americans are the solo actor theoretically mediating between the belligerent actors. I personally believe that years ago we should have become aware that the formula adopted in Madrid and then in Oslo was not very relevant except the peace process. Why?” he enquired.


Ambassador Afif continued, “I remember after 1993 I said to them; I am still saying about the year 90s that the Israeli wants a diplomatic outcome for that peace process that would reflect the instinctive American alignment of the Israeli preference and the outcome that reflect the decline of Russia; the abdication of Europe and the impotence of the Arab world and what they thought would be Palestinian resignation. And our answer was always say to the Israelis that we had many interlock with the Israelis; don’t confuse Palestinian’s realism with resignation.”



Speaking about Intifadas, Ambassador Afif mentioned, “I believe you will remember that we had several intifadas with modest means and the Palestinians are realistic; but not resigned to the fate that was allocated. I spoke of abdication of Europe; often European Union interlockers taking the model of Norway how the Oslo process put Norway on the map. I used to tell them up to now you have been relegated to the role of players and usually aspire to be players because of the proximity, because of your intimate knowledge of the region, because of your colonial past etc. etc. Today we are stagnated. I would not conceive from you that we would like to see a different framework; that saffrony peace process.”



Referring to the Quartet and peace process so far, Ambassador Afif said, “The Quartet which was created in 2002 and we have welcomed the birth of Quartet and that you know that Quartet was made by the USA, EU, Russia and the UN to represent everybody else.  The Quartet has proven to be a one-tenth of operation; everybody else abrogated on their possible potential role and I believe President Mahmoud Abbas in a few days would be at the Security Council addressing the international community and I believe he would be asking that the future endeavours should be saffroned by the Security Council and the five permanent members and to be don’t have any objections or vetoes to add other members but the five permanent members of the Security Council who should decide and one does not need to be genius to contours the contents of the desirable possible peace all the practitioners of the diplomacy today know what they are. Will the Americans stop that veto exercise? Yes they intend to; and will Netanyahu pressure the Trump administration to sabotage that endeavour? I think he will.”


No acceptable solution in the pipeline

Ambassador Afif believes that we, the Palestinians should give priority to our own political system in order. He said, “We have suffered divisions; we have suffered geographic political nature of West Bank. I don’t think there is an acceptable solution in the pipeline; we have to grow accustomed for a sort of protracted period of no solution and how to preserve our society. We have a high level of unemployment in the West Bank 25%; in Gaza over 50%; not healthy sign at all. I personally believe priority should be given to our domestic challenges. I believe we should try to internationalise the quest for diplomatic solution and no more accept the solo performance of the American administration.”


“I personally believe that we should re-visit and re-think our strategy. There is an idea that has surfaced a Palestinian Palestinian circle recently; that I would like to address with the utmost respect that I believe the incivility debating issues and the future and the fate of the Palestinian people is a very serious matter and I believe we have suffered too many divisions to add to the wounds that have been inflicted and the issues I would like to address the issue: one state or two state and Ladies and Gentleman, I would try to do it as respectfully as possible, even though I belong to one camp of that argument,” argued ambassador Afif.


Palestinian ambassador said, “As I told you I grew up politically with one state solution. For me 1973 October war, the Ramadan war was the demarcation line. And increasingly we grew attached and committed to the two state solutions. As I told you we saw the advent of one state solution either as a result of the military victory or as a result of the successful efforts of the persuasion of the Jewish community in Palestine. I personally believe that today’s speaking of the one state solution is not new strategic thing; it is a repeated old dishes; and I believe today after we have seen many months of ethnic states implode and explode in the Balkans and elsewhere; where we have seen Israeli Palestinians too hatred between the communities full scale of oppression and the occupation increase instead of decrease as was unexpectedly in the peace process.”


One state solution is an optical illusion

Ambassador Afif believes today it is an optical illusion to speak of one state solution for a variety of reasons. He mentioned the reasons as follows: “Number one, I personally believe that not more than one percent of Israeli society believes in it. Number two, I personally believe that that approach over-emphasizes the quantitative dimension saying that in the year 2020 the Palestinians would be the obvious demographic majority in the country means absolute attributed nothing for me; because I remember still that apartheid functioned for over 50 years even though the blacks of South Africa 25 millions and the whites are three to five millions it continued for 50 years. So overemphasizing the quantitative dimension.”


Ambassador Afif mentioned, “Besides the fact he mentioned also about the 70 years of dispossession, dispersion and oppression. He said, “Today I believe throughout the 70 years of dispossession, dispersion and oppression the gaps between the two societies have increased tremendously instead of being reduced and the one state solution, if it were possible, I told you I believe it is an optical illusion. You told me the perpetuation of the domination of one community by the other and I personally believe it creates several problems like we have an international consensus about the illegality of the settlements being built on our land. When we speak of the one state solution are we accepting that settlements would be stay on? So I do not believe that. One state solution is a realistic target.”


American-Israeli Relationships

Speaking about the American-Israeli Relationships, Ambassador Afif mentioned there are two schools of thought. He explained, “There are those who believe in Israeli America and those who believe in American Israeli. Let me explain. There are those who believe that its patron the superpower that dictates its regional clients what should be its regional policy; and then there is other school of thought they believe that no, it’s the regional client that makes the superpower the protector adopt its regional fresh strategy and integrate its into its global approach. I will not conceive to this idea. I belonged to the second school of thought.”


America is in a uni-polar mono-polar world

Ambassador Afif said I used to say America is a fascinating society; it’s a world dominia; every continent culture religion represented within their ranks. America today is in a uni-polar mono-polar world; even though today; I speak of 2005 and 2008; it was obviously uni-polar mono-polar world. Today we are in another transitional period where the international system has a variety of complex features of a uni-polar system bi-polar system and multi-polar system at the same time. So it is difficult to describe even. When America is in the uni-polar world and being a country of a nation of nations where every society, culture and civilization aligning itself with one belligerent party in a regional conflict; not only it is antagonising and offending and alienating all the other players in the regional conflict but it also antagonising its domestic component of its own society; of its own national fabric.”


“And as you can expect it was not easy until today to be a Palestinian American, or an Arab-American or a Muslim American and there are 8/9 million of those in America who feel that their country of adoption is totally unsympathetic and insensitive to the ordeals of their country of origin. By the way, it fails on the receptive ears of American foreign policy should be even-handed and not aligned,” Palestinian ambassador mentioned.


Obama year was a major disappointment for us

“I liked Obama a lot,” said Ambassador Afif and added, “But the Obama year was a major disappointment for us, as a Palestinian, even though he tried. Tried by the beginning of raising; first of all; he tried by doing with his speeches in Istanbul and Cairo which promised to ushering a new chapter in American Arab relations, in American Muslim relations. Welcome that.”


Arab country was the first to recognise

American Independence

 “I always in America used to say to my friends never forget that it was an Arab country that is the first country to recognise the American independence. It was Morocco and Arab country that was the first to recognise American independence,” said Ambassador Afif and mentioned also, “if some of us remember the American sent the Congressional presidential blessings; Congressional fact-finding committee into Palestinian; calls the Kings Crane Commission; which came back to Washington to say that the Balfour Declaration cannot be implemented unless there is a massive use of force. This indeed American and the American asked that fact-finding mission was failed in its depiction of the reality.”