Hailed as one of the best spokespersons for Palestine, veteran diplomat Afif Safieh impressed many during his four-city tour in Canada, earlier this year.
Safieh – the author of The Peace Process: From Breakthrough to Breakdown – is also the Palestinian Authority’s roving ambassador for special missions.
But while the messenger was admirable, the message was disturbing.
Safieh’s high degree of eloquence and refined diplomatic skills were not enough to conceal the current pathetic state of political stagnation and bankrupt strategic thinking that inflict the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA).
Safieh stressed his personal view that international intervention is needed for any peace agreement to be reached with Israel and repeatedly referenced international law as the basis for the demands the Palestinians are making. But his message was greatly compromised by the limitations of his official status as representative of the PLO.
In response to threats made by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird that the PA would face great “consequences” if it decided to make a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, Safieh assured the Canadian government and the public that the Palestinian leadership has no “immediate plans” to pursue Israel at the ICC.
This is disappointing to say the least, given that high level PLO/PA officials also assured the Palestinian people that once they secured member state status at the United Nations – which they did in November 2012 as an observer state – they would be able tohold Israel to account for war crimes that have so far gone completely unpunished.
So what is the plan for moving forward?
If Safieh’s interviews with Canadian media are anything to go by, the plan is apparently to save the peace process, even though it has led nowhere for 20 years.
He insisted that the fate of the peace process depends “on ending Israel’s settlement building”. This phrase has been repeated in PLO/PA official statements during the past several years with emphasis on “ending” settlement building or “freezing” the settlements, and no mention of dismantling the settlements and returning Palestinian land to its rightful owners.
To understand the implications of this language we only need to listen carefully to a key sentence Safieh repeated in various interviews while in Canada:
“There would be some territorial land swaps containing Jewish settlement blocs with Israel in exchange for an equal amount of land from the Israeli side.”
But this idea of land swaps began during a different era, before Israel colonised large amounts of land in the West Bank. In fact, it was first brought up in 1990 in Italy at a meeting jointly arranged by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace and an alliance of Arab academics and intellectuals.
Land swaps were brought up again at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and have continued to be part of the discourse. The problem is that while negotiations went on over the past two decades, settlements grew and today the settlements and their system of roads and infrastructure consume more than 40 percent of the West Bank. So how exactly do we envision land swaps today?
Safieh told the Canadian public and media that Palestinians would exchange their territorial land for equal amount of land from the Israeli side. But according to documents from the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit leaked to Al Jazeera, the last land-swap proposal made by Israel in 2008 gave the Palestinians smaller, less significant patches of land that are of lesser agricultural quality. Moreover, this exchange excluded Jerusalem.
Safieh’s media catch phrase that the Palestinian leadership is being “unreasonably reasonable” is not accurate. The correct phrase should be that the Palestinian leadership is being unreasonably suicidal.
The “land swaps” rhetoric is designed to protect the large Israeli settlement blocks and of course their buffer zones, settler-only roads and infrastructure – all built on prime agricultural Palestinian land, from being included in any Palestinian state.
As PLO representatives parrot the parlance of “land swaps”, they need to remember that these settlements they are protecting are responsible not only for destroying Palestinian livelihood, but also for theft of Palestinian resources most important of which is water.
Today, the PLO/PA has been boxed into an Israeli-American framework. Not only are they unable to realise that Israel has created the irreversible reality of a single state on the ground, they are not even capable of imagining a situation where they would change the mantra of direct negotiations with Israel to a call for international arbitration or a referral to the International Court of Justice.
Worse, as is evident from Safieh’s Canada tour, missing from the PLO/PA public discourse today is any serious advocacy for the rights of the millions of Palestinian refugees or the inequality suffered by Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.
It is as if we are somehow meant to believe that an end to occupation that may lead to a deformed state on tiny patches of undesirable agricultural land, where less than a third of the total Palestinian population lives, is all that is needed to bring about peace.
Finally, this talk of “land swaps” evokes memories of decades of colonial oppression and total disregard for the indigenous people’s rights, the people whose lives are affected with every line drawn on some sterile map by well-suited men.
For the PLO/PA to lend legitimacy to Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land by accepting the principle of land swaps and for them to adopt the same language as their occupiers is unforgiveable. Who then speaks in a language that represents Palestinian aspirations, advocates for their rights in the refugee camps, inside Israel and in the diaspora and challenges the injustices suffered?
Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian writer and Policy Adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.
Follow her on Twitter: @gazaheart