Among his friends, David Stone said he is "viewed as a crazy left-winger" for his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he confessed to walking out of a meeting Monday with the new PLO representative to the U.S. "disheartened" by what he heard.
"I have to tell you that a guy trying to reach out to people on a day like that might have begun by expressing some sympathy," he said, referring to the Palestinian suicide bombing in Netanya that killed five Israelis. "But I found him very unsympathetic."
The PLO representative, Afif Safieh, had told his audience at a luncheon of the Israel Policy Forum that to achieve peace "reconciliation" was needed by both Israelis and Palestinians. But he noted that since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in February, there are 3,000 more Palestinians in Israeli jails. Safieh, 55, pointed out that Israel refuses to release those "with blood on their hands."
"If we applied the same criteria to Israel," he continued, "I would hardly find any Israelis to talk to."
When Stone later challenged him on that, Safieh (who assumed his post on Nov. 1) said he saw no difference between Palestinian suicide bombers and Israelis, all of whom must serve in the military.
"I found that truly horrifying," Stone told The Jewish Week. "If this is the way he feels (that a soldier in the line of duty is the same as a guy who blows up in a nightclub) he is not the one we want to sit down to have lunch with. … I must admit I left there feeling very uncomfortable."
Safieh was also challenged by the audience when he spoke about Israeli political parties that call for the forced transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank. Reminded that Israel’s Supreme Court had banned the Kach Party for such a position, Safieh insisted that other Israeli parties espoused the same view.
In his presentation, Safieh also said he knew Marwan Barghouti and considered him a "man of peace" who favors a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. "I believe there is wisdom in releasing him, but that will not happen because of the internal Israeli situation," he said, adding that many Palestinians favor Barghouti to be the next Palestinian leader. Barghouti, the leader of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank, was arrested in April 2002 and charged with killing 26 people and being a member of a terrorist organization. He was convicted by an Israeli court and sentenced to five life terms.
Safieh said he also supported the right of Hamas to run candidates in the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election. "Hamas is not monolithic," he said, noting that the "democratic" wing of the group is running for office and that it might get 20 to 25 percent of the vote.
Safieh noted that Israel is against Hamas running until its members disarm and it changes its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel. If Abbas tried to enforce Israel’s demands, he said, it would touch off a Palestinian civil war that would spill over into Israel.
He insisted that Hamas has not broken the cease-fire it has agreed to and that it is Israel that has breached the quiet by launching "targeted killings and assassinations."
Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, said that although it was good to hear Safieh, "it was more important that he hear from us."
"He offered no palliatives," he said. "He wanted to communicate, but he didnít use the right words or gestures to accommodate the concerns the Jewish community has regarding where the Palestinians are going."
Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said when told of Safieh’s comments that they "will not help to foster the cause of peace."