American foreign policy in the Middle East is at a crossroads, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States said yesterday in a speech in the Modern Language Building.
He said the U.S. government can either alienate Arabs by constantly siding with Israel or change course and work with both sides to achieve peace.
Afif Safieh, who has represented the Palestinian government in the United States since October of last year, said there is a need for a third party to mediate the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The United States could be that mediator by withholding support from the Israeli government until Israel changes its policy toward Palestine, Safieh said.
The United States does not give the Palestinian diplomatic mission or Safieh official diplomatic status.
“We have become unreasonably reasonable,” he said. “We have reached the end of our willingness to make concessions.”
The American Culture department held the event in hopes of changing the preconceptions of Arabs and Arab-Americans, said Prof. Nadine Naber, who arranged the event.
She said anti-Arab racism tends to intensify during times of war in the Middle East.
“It’s important to support the participation of Arab and Arab-American voices in discussions about peaceful solutions and possibilities for change in the Middle East,” Naber said.
Safieh lamented what he calls the intolerant way many Westerners view Arabs.
“In today’s world, the only phobia is Islam-phobia,” Safieh said. “But there is no different kind of man or woman. We all belong to the same mankind.”
Safieh said it’s not American ideals that he disagrees with, but American policy.
“My hope is that America reconciles its power with its principles,” Safieh said.
Safieh said the Palestinians find inspiration in the legacy of American reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
He stressed the need for the United States to be even-handed in its approach to the conflict in the Middle East.
“If ever America aligns itself with one player within a region of conflict, it will alienate its own society in addition to the other players in the region,” Safieh said.
After the presentation, Safieh took questions from a largely sympathetic audience. While some asked him to elaborate on his ideas, none overtly criticized his main points.
One group of women at the speech said they were hoping to bridge the divide between the Israelis and Palestinians by traveling to the Middle East in May. The group, called Zeitouna, is made up of Arab and Jewish women from Ann Arbor.
“I appreciated the ambassador’s intelligence and positive energy because it is one of the things that is lacking in this discourse,” Zeitouna member Laurie White said. “As a Jew, I would have liked him to differentiate between the Jewish community and the Israeli government, however.”
Aida McGugan, an Arab member of the Zeitouna, said she appreciated the way Safieh expressed sympathy for the pain the conflict has wrought on both sides.
“He articulated the thoughts of the Palestinians very clearly,” McGugan said. “We do understand the suffering of the Jewish people in the 20th century, but we don’t want to be alone in making amends for what happened.”
White said she was disappointed with the demographics of the audience.
“I wish that more people from the Jewish community would have taken advantage of the opportunity to hear the ambassador speak,” White said.
Naber expressed her hope that the lecture would help students to understand that the conflict is really best explained in shades of gray, not black and white.
“The reality is that there are multiple Arab perspectives and there are multiple Israeli perspectives,” Naber said. “There are not just two sides. It is useful to hear differing views because we may even find some commonalities between Arab and Israeli thought.”
Safieh’s stop at the University came amid a three-day trip to Southeast Michigan, which is home to one of the nation’s largest Arab-American populations.
Safieh previously served as Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom.