Anatomy of a mission

Afif Safieh

Transcript of Safieh lecture in Chatham House July 2005
London 1990 -2005
From: Palestinian General Delegation
(This is a transcript of the unwritten lecture delivered by Afif Safieh the Palestinian General Delegate to the U.K. at Chatham House/The Royal Institute for International Affairs on Wednesday July 13-2005).

 I feel privileged to have been invited to address such a distinguished audience at such a prestigious 
forum.  Speaking today, almost a week before the end of my official duties in London, I cannot but recall that I started my assignment in London with a Chatham House lecture in September 1990 when I had to step in at the last moment to replace Hani Al Hassan in a session chaired by the late Sir John Moberly.

Let me first give a short history of the Palestinian diplomatic representation in London.

Location:  From the early 1970s until 1986 the Palestinian diplomatic representation was part of the Arab League Office in 52 Green Street.  In 1986 it moved to independent premises in South Kensington at 4 Clareville Grove. For austerity measures, in 1996 we moved again to a smaller but more modern office in a lesser neighbourhood-Hammersmith at 5 Galena Road.

 Appellation: From the early 1970s until 1988 the mission was called PLO Information Office.  Then in 1988, because of our peace initiative based on our acceptance of the two state solution, and in agreement with her Majesty?s government, the Delegation was upgraded to PLO General Delegation.  In 1993, just after the Oslo breakthrough, the delegation was renamed Palestinian General Delegation, representing the PLO and the PNA at the same time.  We were then authorised to fly the Palestinian flag which we did at a very moving ceremony attended by William Ehrman the head of NENAD the Near East/North Africa Department on behalf of the Foreign Office and the members of the Council of Arab Ambassadors.

Representation: The first PLO representative was the late Said Hamami, from the early seventies until 
he was assassinated in 1978.  I never met Said but he was undeniably a very effective representative and I still feel the impact of his passage in London.  He was succeeded by Nabil Ramlawi, from 1978 to 1983, who was then transferred to the U.N. in Geneva. He is  now in our Foreign Ministry in charge of the unit for diplomatic training.  Faisal Oweida followed from 1983 till 1990 and from here was transferred to Austria.  Unfortunately he died two years ago from cancer.

I am the 4th Palestinian representative in London. I do not know if there were any assassination 
attempts.  Any way, if there were, they passed totally unnoticed by me.  Concerning my health, yes I suffer from diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure and I am over weight and a chain smoker.  My 
doctor, every time she sees me, tells me: ?Bravo Afif for still being with us?.

Size: In 1990, I inherited an office with 12 employees including the secretary, the receptionist and the driver. Then, because of budgetary constraints, the number was brought down to five, to rise again gradually up to 8 .

In those 15 years, I have dealt with 3 Prime Ministers: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair.  With 4 Secretaries of State: Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook and now Jack Straw.  With ten Ministers of State:  William Waldgrave, Douglas Hogg, Sir Jeremy Hanley-during the Conservative period, then with the late Derek Fatchett, Peter Hain, Brian Wilson, Geoffry Hoon, Ben Bradshaw, Baroness Symons and now with Dr. Kim Howells.

During these 15 years I have arranged and organised 10 Arafat visits to London, three of them mainly 
connected to meetings with Madeleine Albright.  We have more recently arranged a visit for our Prime 
Minister Abu Ala?a last year and this year for President Mahmoud Abbas for the London conference on 
the 1st March.

The upgrading was gradual.  Landing in town in September 1990, it was prohibited for me to have any 
ministerial level contacts.  Since then I have become familiar to 10 Downing Street, to the Foreign Office and to Westminster-Whitehall in general.  Christ?l and I started being invited to the Tea Garden Party by Her Majesty the Queen, first with the crowd, then we were upgraded to the diplomatic tent, which is for junior diplomats and then to the Royal tent itself. We have been invited to a Royal Banquet in Buckingham Palace for a visiting Head of State.  We are also yearly invited to the Trooping the colours, the Lord Mayor?s Banquet and to Ascot, only to discover that I am not particularly enamoured with horse racing.  Without forgetting the annual invitation to the prestigious Diplomatic Dinner by De La Rue who hope to be contracted to print one day, hopefully soon, our national currency. 

Job Description:  What does a Palestinian representative do?  We have all the responsibilities, burdens and expectations of an embassy.  Yet we neither have all the privileges nor the immunities nor the financial capabilities of a normal embassy.  We are still a national liberation movement, still struggling for independence and statehood. 

How do I define my job description?  Wherever I am posted , I consider that there are 10 layers of work that we have to handle:-

1-      Government

2-      Parliament

3-      Political parties

4-      the Diplomatic corps

5-      the media

6-      the NGO?S

7-      the Palestinian community

8-      the Arab community

9-      the Muslim community

10-  the Jewish community

This in addition to the regular reports to the leadership and some consular duties.  We neither issue 
passports nor visas but we authenticate documents, power of attorney etc&  In moments of optimism 
we do have some commercial duties with companies consulting us about potential for economic 

Let me go through those different ?layers? of work:

1- The government:  At the very beginning it was mainly the Foreign Office and at a sub ministerial level.  Now it is the Foreign Office at all levels, but beyond it, we have to deal with many other departments, including the Prime Minister?s office and different Ministries.

2-Parliament:  I really gave great importance to my dealings and interactions with both Houses of 
Parliament. I was invited three times for hearings by the Select Committee for Foreign Affairs, the first time in April 1991.

In the House of Commons we have 5 institutional interlocutors and channels of communication.  The 
first is CAABU, the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding that has a triple 
chairmanship now from the three major parties:  John Austin, Crispin Blunt and Colin Breed.  The 
second is the Britain/Palestine all party parliamentary group, that was presided over first by Ernie Ross then by Dr. Phyllis Starkey and now by Richard Burden.  Then we have the Labour Middle East Council, the Conservative Middle East Council -which was created by Lord Gilmour and Sir Dennis Walters, then was presided over by Nicholas Soames - and the Liberal Middle East Council that was presided over by Lord David Steel and now by Sir Menzies Campbell.

3- Relations with political parties take place throughout the year and each time I have a dignitary or a delegation, I make sure that they meet the leadership of the opposition parties as well.  But the busiest period is during the season of the annual party conferences in late September and early October.  I usually have one or more fringe meetings.  Those fringe meetings are extremely important because they help shape perceptions, policies, projections and predictions.

4- The Diplomatic Corps : In a lesser capital, relations within the Diplomatic Corps are more horizontal: a bridge club, a tennis players network, frequent  gastronomic trips from The Hague to Brussels etc &  Such leisurely pursuits are unthinkable in London.  Because of the intensity of bilateral relations, the volume of visiting delegations, ministerial, parliamentary etc, the size of the community, relations are more of a vertical nature.  But the Council of Arab Ambassadors remains an extremely important forum and the resulting joint activities are of great value.  I have always drawn the attention of our British interlocutors to the exceptional importance of this Council composed ?of former ministers and those who never wanted to be ministers?.

5- The Media:Beside the importance of the British media and its pool of sophisticated  and 
knowledgeable journalistic community and the heavy presence of international media outfits, London is also the media capital of the Arab world.  It hosts all the Pan Arab dailies distributed from Morocco to Mascat, as well as many weeklies and monthlies, without forgetting the proliferating T.V. satellite 
stations many of whom were born in London or have their second most important offices located here.

6- The N.G.O?s : This is the largest ?layer? and to which I devoted much time.  It includes Churches, 
trade unions, university campuses, think tanks, human rights institutions, solidarity groups etc&  On 
the lecturing circuit, this is the most demanding category.  To take the Churches as an example, I have had the privilege to address the Annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and of the United Reform Church, to lecture twice at Wesley Chapel of the Methodist Church, stayed regularly in touch with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Head of the Roman Catholic Church.    

7- The Palestinian Community: It might not be as big as our communities in the U.S.A., Chili, Canada, 
Australia or even Germany but it an extremely important community, concentrated mainly in the London area and is in more intense contact with the homeland and the region than other diaspora communities.

For example, because London is such an important Arab media center, we probably have here more 
than a 100 Palestinian journalists, second numerically only to Palestine itself.  Throughout the years, 
many institutions were established in London.  The Association of the Palestinian Community, of which I am the patron, has a constitution, a general assembly every two years, democratic elections and already 7 successive presidents.  In addition, there are charities like Medical Aid for Palestinians MAP and Interpal or organisations dealing with lobbying and raising awareness like The Return Center or Arab Media Watch.

We the Palestinians, we have become the Jews of the Israelis and today, because of our geographic 
dispersal, we are ?a global tribe?.   With the right approach, we could turn that into a source of 

8- The Arab Community: We dispose of no accurate figures because in the national census there is no such category for ?Arabs? but ?Muslims? and ?Others?. A conservative estimate would be of over 
400.000 British - Arabs.  Politically speaking it is still an invisible community, the last ethnic minority to be totally unrepresented in both Houses of Parliament.  This is due to the a combination of factors: absence of any governmental encouragement and insufficient assertiveness by the community itself.  The Arab Club and National Association are regular interlocutors of the Palestinian delegation.  

9- The Muslim Community: Now close to 2 millions with already 5 members in the House of Lords and 4 elected members of the House of Commons.  Their electoral weight is increasingly being felt.  Since my arrival to London, I am in regular contact with the Union of Muslim Organisations U.M.O. and the Muslim Council of Britain M.C.B., lectured at the invitation of ?City Circle? a network of second and third generation Muslims who work in the City&.

10-The Jewish Community: Wherever I happen to live or work, I devote a lot of time interacting with the Jewish community and many of its institutions.  I have frequently lectured in the Liberal Synagogue in St John?s Wood, always kept close relations with the Jewish Socialist Group, Jews for justice, friends of Mapam, friends of Peace Now, Neturai  karta,  etc &  June Jacobs, Rabbi David Goldberg and many others are personal friends of both Christ?l and myself.

Some years ago, the Jewish Chronicle published, unaltered, a long letter of mine where I said: ?I never compare the Palestinian Nakba / Catastrophe to the Holocaust.  Each tragedy stands on its own.  I never indulge in comparative martyrology. If I were a Jew or a Gypsy, Nazi barbarity would be the most horrible event in History. If I were a Native American it would be the arrival of European settlers that resulted in almost total extermination.  If I were a Black African, it would be slavery in previous centuries and Apartheid during last century.  If I were an Armenian, it would the Ottoman /Turkish massacres.  If I were a Palestinian ? and I happen to be one ? it would be the Nakba.  Humanity should condemn all the above.  I do not know of a way to measure suffering or how to quantity pain but what I do know is that we are not Children of a Lesser God?

The broader picture: evolution of European perceptions    

1948:  European public perceptions of the Palestinian problem passed through a variety of phases.  
European anti-Semitism was decisive in the birth then the success of Zionism in Palestine.  Without the ?Dreyfus Affair? there would not have been Theodore Herzl?s manifesto: ?The Jewish State?. Without Hitter?s accession to power in the early 1930?s and Nazi atrocities, Zionism would have remained a minority tendency within Jewish Communities. Both Abba Eban and Nahum Goldman wrote in a variety of books that the ?exceptional conditions? of the birth of Israel wouldn?t have been possible without ?the indulgence of the international community? as a result of the World War II.  ?Exceptional conditions? meant the atrocious conditions in which the majority in Palestine became the minority and the minority a majority.

Alas the Palestinian dispossession and dispersion, the Nakba, took place with Europe& applauding.  We were the victim of the victims of European history and were thus deprived of our legitimate share of sympathy, solidarity and support.

1956:  I do not think that the tri-partite aggression against Egypt in 1956 made much of a fracture in the political establishment here in the U.K.  Yes it shortened Anthony Eden?s premiership.  Yes, the late Lord Christopher Mayhew committed political harakiri when it was predicted that he had prime 
ministerial potential.  Yes, the late writer Peter Mansfield resigned from the Foreign Office but there 
was no major crack in society.  In France, its impact was by far more serious. It helped terminate the 4th Republic and the political careers of Gaston Deferre and Guy Mollet, brought back de Gaulle to power in 1958 and thus contributed to the reorientation of French foreign policy.

1967: If one reads the book of Livia Rokach, the daughter of the first Mayor of Tel Aviv, on the Diaries of Moshe Sharett, one learns that Ben Gourion had two strategic doctrines.  One was the periphery theory: since our environment is hostile, we have to make an alliance with the environment of our environment meaning Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia.  The other doctrine could be summarised thus: we should know how to provoke the Arabs into provoking us so that we can expand beyond the narrow boundaries we have had to accept in 1948-49.  That model applies perfectly to the escalating crisis that led to the 1967 war.  General Matti Peled was known to have said: ?believing that Israel was in danger in 1967 is an insult to the Israeli army?.

1967 is important because Israel starts to be perceived as an occupier.  The facilitation of mass 
Palestinian departures to get rid of undesirable demography, the illegal annexation of expanded East 
Jerusalem, the beginning of settlement building, all start to tarnish the Israeli image.

1973: That was an important strategic moment and undeniably a demarcation line.  Europe shows 
understanding towards the Arab military initiative to reawaken a dormant diplomatic front.  The oil crisis that followed revealed the depth of interdependence, economic and on the security level between Europe and the Arab World and the risk of regional over-spills.  The Euro-Arab dialogue is initiated and the need for an equitable solution for the Palestinian problem emphasized. 

1977:  The first electoral defeat by Labour liberates more segments of Western public opinion 
anaesthesized by the soothing discourse of the labour leadership and their savoir-faire in matters of 
public relations.  The raw discourse of Likud, their vociferous and vehement statements reflect better 
the reality of oppression.  The Kibbutz movement , this ?paradise on earth? used to seduce public 
opinion is discovered as a fading phenomenon that never represented more that 3% of society and of 
the Israeli economy anyway mainly built on confiscated Palestinian land. Under Israel, Palestine.  A very stubborn Palestine indeed.

1982:  The invasion of Lebanon was an eye-opener.  An unprovoked war.  Analysts said then that ?it was a war out of choice not out of necessity? Many Jewish and Israeli writers announced ?the end of the purity of arms?.

1987: The first Palestinian Intifada.  Mainly non violent coupled in 1988 by the P.L.O. peace initiative of a Two-State solution and ushers a new era  in which the media starts to better balance its coverage giving more time and space to Palestinian spokespersons carrying our version of history.

My term of duty in London

Let me first say that London, for an Arab or a Palestinian diplomat, is an emotionally difficult posting, 
from the Balfour Declaration to the Gulf wars.  Yet I have to commend all my interlocutors for their 
profound decency and extreme professionalism.

1990: I landed in town in September 1990 and it was not a soft landing coinciding  it coincided with the first Gulf crisis and Saddam Hussain?s occupation of Kuwait. 

We were accused then to have bet on the wrong horse.  My major concern was not to get politically 
marginalised.  I detested Saddam, the occupation of Kuwait, the rapid deployment of foreign troops and the preparations for war.  I kept my adherence to the diplomatic option that I favoured.  On a David Frost Sunday programme I stated: ?You have seen Yasser Arafat kiss the cheeks of Saddam but you did not bother to ask what he was whispering in his ear?.

1991:  With the end of the Gulf war, James Baker started his shuttle diplomacy.  From London, we played an important role to project the image of the indivisible nature of the Palestinian people and of its national movement.  In London several publicised meetings took place between PL.O. officials, 
Palestinian personalities from the  occupied territories and diaspora intellectuals 

like Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu Lughod. The British Government offered us  facilitations so that Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi could ?slip? through London to Tunis for consultations.  My position was: the P.L.O. is, at the same time, an institution and an idea.  If ten thousands work in the institution, the 9 million Palestinians are the powerful vehicle of the idea.  The P.L.O. has represented the Palestinian people for over 25 years.  Now it will be the Palestinians representing the P.L.O.  I frequently repeated then that the P.L.O. had become ?unreasonably reasonable? having accepted that in the Madrid  conference the Palestinians were ?half a delegation, representing half the people seeking half a solution?.

1992: While negotiations are stagnating in Washington, the Oslo process starts& in London.  On the 2nd of December the steering committee of the Multilateral Talks held its meetings in London.  Abu Ala?a was the coordinator of the Palestinian negotiating teams but could not--the P.L.O. was still 
excluded--attend himself.  While the formal official event was taking place in Lancaster House, Abu Ala?a and myself met at the Ritz Hotel with Yair Hirshfield an assistant of Yossi Beilin, with Terry Larsen, the Norwegian, hovering on the sides.

1993:  The Oslo breakthrough and the White House signature.  History in the making, I kept repeating.  The specificity of the Palestinian situation: ?a leadership in exile, a demography dispersed, a geography occupied? could move towards normality or the semblance of normality of ?an authority over a demography over a geography?.

1994:  My application for ?family reunification? in East Jerusalem submitted by a distant relative &my 
mother, was rejected by the occupation authorities.  I had planned to abandon politics and diplomacy 
and start an English weekly in Jerusalem: ?The Palestinian?.

The beginning of disenchantment with the peace process.  My message was : Israel seeks a diplomatic outcome that would reflect: 1- Israeli power and intransigence, 2- The American constant alignment on the Israeli preference, 3- Russian decline, 4- European abdication, 5- Arab impotence, 

6- and what they hope to be Palestinian resignation. My advice was: do not confuse realism with resignation. 

1995:  All Palestinian factions abide to an unproclaimed cease-fire. Assassination of Rabin by a Jewish 
extremist.  The Israeli Government provokes the Islamic tendencies by the assassination of Shikaki in 
Malta and the ?Engineer? in Gaza.

1996: Successful Palestinian Presidential and legislative elections. Retaliation of the Islamic tendencies in response to Israeli assassination policy.  Peres wages war in Lebanon ending with the Kana massacre.  ?Retaliation? of the Palestinian Israeli voters through abstention and election of Netanyahu whom I described as ?a pyromaniac on a power keg?.  My lectures are often titled: ?From breakthrough to breakdown??. Still then followed by a question mark.

1997:  Diplomatic stagnation.  Instead of a permanent peace we live through the farce of a durable& 
peace process.

1998: Three meetings between President Arafat and Madeleine Albright in London. Increasing irritation 
of the American administration with Netanyahu?s rigidity.  His damaging of American-Israeli relations is one of the factors that lead in 1999 to his electoral defeat opposite Barak.

1999: Barak a monumental disappointment.  A complex individual, he alienated his colleagues within 
Labour and antagonised his coalition partners.  Freezes the Palestinian track and flirts with the Syrian 

2000: Barak wants to over jump the interim phases and move directly to final status talks.  Arafat makes known that he believes that to be premature because insufficient home work was done. The American side restricted itself to convey to us Israeli proposals.  David Aaron Miller, in a recent candid op-ed in The Washington Post-titled: ?Israel?s lawyer?--writes that had the American side presented the ?Clinton Parameters? in Camp David in July rather than, too late in December, we would have had an agreement then.   

The failure of Camp David heightens tensions.  The provocative Sharon visit to the Dome of the Rock 
ignites the situation.  The Mitchell report, some time later, admits that the second Intifada started by 
being non-violent and that the ferocious repression by the Israeli side, causing more than a hundred 
fatalities the first two weeks, pushed a few on our side to resort, unwisely, to using arms.

2001-2002: In the internal debate, I lobby for a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire.  Clinically, I believe that the Israelis should be aware that they cannot terminate the Intifada and that we should be aware that by the Intifada alone, we cannot terminate the occupation.  There is a need for a diplomatic initiative.

2002:  The Diplomatic initiative occurs when the Beirut Arab Summit adopts the Saudi peace initiative. It is, alas, followed by a Hamas suicide bombing in Netanya.  Sharon, offered a choice between reciprocating to a diplomatic ouverture or a retaliating to a military provocation chooses the latter.  The world suffering from self-inflicted impotence, watches the reinvasion of the already occupied territories.  The Nakba is definitely not a frozen moment in history that has recurred sometime in 1948.

2003:   The previous September, Tony Blair, at the Labour annual conference, is very warmly applauded when he announces that he will convene an international conference to help resolve the conflict.  The conference convened turns out to be more modest than expected: ?on Palestinian reforms?.  Even that displeases Sharon who tries to sabotage the London gathering by preventing Palestinian ministers from travelling.  Fortunately modern technology and video-conferencing salvage the day.  Here in London, I have to carry the burden. The Message: ?Reform, meritocracy, transparency are not conditions to be imposed on us by the outside world.  They are a Palestinian expectation, aspiration, a right and even a duty. Yet I warn: the issue of Palestinian reforms should not be the tree that hides the forest and in this case the forest is an ugly spectacle of occupation and oppression.

2004:  Again, during the Labour party conference end of September, Tony Blair gets the loudest applause for his passage ?Come November&. I will make it my personal priority&?  I have, since then, often invoked this Blair speech to prove that Yasser Arafat was not the obstacle to peace.  End of September, Arafat was not dead.  He was not even ill.  By ?Come November?, Tony Blair meant when we have the American presidential elections behind us.

2005:  With the disappearance of the founder of  the contemporary Palestinian national movement, I 
frequently refer to Max Weher who spoke of the phases of leadership and legitimacy: 1- the traditional phase, 2- the charismatic phase, 3- the institutional phase. The successful presidential elections, competitive and internationally monitored is a good omen for the future.  Having witnessed the end of the charismatic era, a managerial revolution should now be on the agenda.  We all know Sharon?s intention.  How the world and the Quartet will carry the peace process beyond the unilateral Israeli 
disengagement from Gaza remains to be seen.

In Conclusion: 

We have an excellent working relationship with Her Majesty?s Government and with the entire political establishment.  In Parliament, it is the pro-Israeli lobby which is on the defensive, more confortable in supporting an Israel run by Labour rather than the internationally embarrassing Likoud.

All opinion polls in Britain, but also across Europe, show that the trend is overwhelmingly in favour of 
ending the Israeli occupation that has started in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian State.  It is no more a left wing phenomenon but we enjoy confortable majorities among the voters of the Liberals and also the Conservative.

Unlike 1973, when European Governmental positions were more advanced than their public opinions, 
today public opinions are more sensitive and supportive of Palestinian aspirations than their 
governments. The future looks promising.  It is no more politically suicidal to be pro-Palestinian.  It is no more electorally rewarding to be anti-Palestinian.  Quiet the opposite.

Thank you very much


  Back to top