A peace of Sari Nusseibeh's mind

Have the violent years since 2000 knocked the stuffing out of the former head of the PLO in Jerusalem?

Sari Nusseibeh 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sari Nusseibeh 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life By Sari Nusseibeh (with Anthony David) Farrar Straus Giroux 560 pages; $27.50 At least five times in his autobiography, Sari Nusseibeh likens his life to a mystery novel. As he negotiates the tortuous recesses of the PLO, Israeli jails, two intifadas and confrontations with Hamas, it's hard to disagree. Like the amateur sleuths of popular fiction, Nusseibeh retains his humane perspective when others resort to violence, names the bad guys (there are plenty of them) and looks toward a peaceful future even as it seems the bloodshed will never end. The shame is that he's yet to have the opportunity to call Israeli and Palestinian leaders into Miss Marple's cozy drawing room to explain whodunit. This book is the closest he'll get, and it demonstrates what Jerusalem politics is missing with Nusseibeh's partial withdrawal over the last few years. The former head of the PLO in Jerusalem and current president of Al-Quds University in the east of the city has written a memoir that's fascinating in its portrayal of Arab Jerusalem and deeply revealing in its history of internal Palestinian politics. Nusseibeh has been involved in so much secret negotiating and clandestine activism that his memoir must, of necessity, go far beyond the headlines that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Readers will certainly never think the same way again about Yasser Arafat or Yitzhak Shamir, among others. Nusseibeh's aim is to make you think differently about Jerusalem itself. The city, after all, is Nusseibeh's starting point and constant reference. Descended from a tribe that fought by the side of the Prophet Muhammad, the Nusseibehs have been in Jerusalem since the Muslim conquest, most famously being entrusted by the Caliph Omar with the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nusseibeh's father was a prominent politician in young King Hussein's Jordan, and passed on a quality of eternal hopefulness to his son, along with a degree of noblesse oblige that makes him protective of Jerusalem's heritage. To outsiders, the Oxford- and Harvard-educated professor can seem a little too good to be true. As a foreign correspondent, I've met Nusseibeh a number of times and, in his utter reasonableness, he appears perhaps too Western to deal with the nastiness of Palestinian politics. Nusseibeh probably knows that he comes across this way. That's why he's so keen to root his family line and his thinking in Jerusalem and Islam - the two political areas that count most to ordinary Palestinians. Nusseibeh's current coexistence program with former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon is, he contends, the true mirror of benign early Muslim rule over Jerusalem and of the medieval Islamic philosophy he studied for his doctorate. Hamas, by contrast, is peopled by "wild-eyed fanatics" whose style of Islam simply doesn't belong in Jerusalem. As with his Ayalon project, Nusseibeh's approach to Israel is always novel and open. His first contact with Israelis is soon after the Six Day War on landing at Lod Airport, where he's shocked that this rude, uneducated crowd shoving for the taxis could have defeated his cultured Arab nation. By 1968, he's studying Hebrew in ulpan and working on a kibbutz. These are the first steps in a journey that takes Nusseibeh beyond the entrenched politics of both sides. The creative thinking that results centers on nothing more complicated than empathy: "Weren't both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn't this inability to imagine the lives of the 'other' at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?" That empathy takes Nusseibeh in unexpected political directions without turning him into a shill for Israel (he condemns Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "cancerous"). Years before Oslo, he's negotiating with Likud politicians, including hard-liner Tzahi Hanegbi. But what makes Nusseibeh's story more remarkable is that he sticks to the idea of peace, even when violence erupts and other politicians revert to hatred. (Within a few years of those negotiations, Hanegbi calls for Nusseibeh to be put on trial.) Nusseibeh is even more shocked by the turn toward violence of his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership during the second intifada, which he calls a "catastrophic slapdash brawl." After the failed summit at Camp David in 2000, Nusseibeh fears Arafat is "losing his grip on reality." Greater disappointment follows, when Nusseibeh meets Marwan Barghouti, whom he has always thought of as an intelligent, tough street leader. "In those days, he had lost it," Nusseibeh recounts. "In the most shortsighted and morally questionable act of his life, he reached for a gun." Nusseibeh's theory is that Israeli leaders are happier with a man who reaches for the gun than a man of peace. "The PLO had far more to gain from a nonviolent struggle than the Israelis, for whom a switch to dialogue would have meant having to defend the indefensible and would thus have necessitated an eventual full retreat from the Occupied Territories," he writes. Of course, the first intifada was only "nonviolent" in comparison to the full-scale warfare of the second intifada, but one of Nusseibeh's main themes is the contrast between the treatment Israel sometimes dealt out to Palestinians who argued for nonviolent protest and others who pushed for violence. Nusseibeh cites the repeated arrest during the first intifada of PLO Jerusalem chief Faisal Husseini at unarmed rallies, compared to the carte blanche given Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (until Hamas started on its suicide-bombing campaigns), the deportation of an advocate of nonviolence, and the blocking of his own early contacts with Israeli politicians by then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. Perhaps it's a sign of Nusseibeh's sanity that his account of the "madness" of the second intifada is the least interesting chapter of his story. One can sense Nusseibeh gradually turning inward in the face of the senselessness, focusing on relatively small projects, like the version of Sesame Street broadcast by Al-Quds Educational TV, and eventually spending a year on a fellowship in the US. His project to build a grassroots peace movement is obviously less exciting than driving around the West Bank distributing illicit cash to activists in the first intifada, but he seems to have the conflict at arm's length by the end of his book. It's as though the violent years since 2000 have knocked some of the stuffing out of Nusseibeh. Far from the definitive nailing of the guilty party at the close of the mystery novel, he ends up quoting his English wife telling an Israeli journalist that the Palestinian situation "isn't all black." Lucy Nusseibeh isn't wrong about that, but it's a sign of the Palestinians' political malaise that decades of activism from Jerusalem's most creative thinker end on this less-than-emphatic note. The writer is author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first in a series of Palestinian mystery novels, and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine.