One on One with Sari Nusseibeh

Al-Quds University president tells Post about his new autobiography and old quest for coexistence.

Sari Nusseibeh 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sari Nusseibeh 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
During the 15-minute drive between west Jerusalem and Al-Quds University in Beit Hanina, the landscape changes so dramatically that the distance between the two points feels as great as the cultural chasm that separates them. It is a divide that philosophy professor and president Sari Nusseibeh has been acclaimed, mainly by Jewish peaceniks, for trying to bridge. Indeed, the 58-year-old Damascus-born son of wealthy and politically influential Muslims from pre-state Palestine is well-known among Israelis for his having joined forces with former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head and current Labor Party leadership candidate Ami Ayalon to establish "The People's Voice" - a civil initiative aiming to advance Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. From today's vantage point, with civil war raging - and anarchy reigning - in Gaza, this goal might sound as far-fetched as the flock of sheep grazing on the grass of the Al-Quds campus, oblivious to the students passing by on the way to their classes. And Nusseibeh's faith in finding a solution which "is totally acceptable and beneficial to us both" might seem like a pipe dream, at best. Particularly when one considers that the Oxford- and Harvard-educated intellectual-turned-activist was a close adviser to Yasser Arafat and served as the PLO's chief representative in Jerusalem in 2001-2. Still, he insists in articulate, Arabic-lilted English, "What Arafat did - sign the Oslo Accords - was historic... The fact that he was able ideologically to bring everybody behind him to be prepared to make peace with Israel was very, very important." Is this a case a of wishful thinking on the part of a self-described lover of myths and fairy tales, or the result of the hope and faith instilled in him by his father, who used to tell him that "rubble often makes the best building material"? Nusseibeh addresses these and other related questions in his recently released autobiography, Once upon a Country: a Palestinian Life (written with Anthony David; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux publishers; New York). In an hour-long interview to discuss the book and the ideas that shaped it, Nusseibeh is as congenial as his attire is casual. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he looks more like an American graduate student than an Arab educator who presides over a 5,000-plus student body. The only giveaway to his roots is the string of worry beads he removes from the pocket of his jeans and fondles throughout our conversation. Whether this is a function of ill ease at being forced to spell out subtle positions in too short a time, or due to his having quit smoking, is not clear. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. Or maybe my inability to assess his actions is a minor example of precisely what Nusseibeh sees as the source of the Palestinian-Israel conflict: mistaken interpretations. The impression one gets from your book is that you view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a kind of Greek tragedy - in which there are two "protagonists" who have deeply ensconced difficulty developing empathy for one another, which is at the root of their mutual inability to share this land peacefully. Is this, indeed, your interpretation of the situation? Almost. One of the things that makes a tragedy a tragedy is the hero's being an average person. If a hero appears to be too off one way or the other, chances are that the audience will not be able to identify with him. The Israelis - the Jewish people - are not ordinary. And the Palestinians, as a result of the conflict, developed into a special kind of people. On the whole, both peoples - not their leaders, because one can never be sure of what leaders are up to - do not see eye-to-eye, because they misinterpret each other's intentions. Much of the conflict is based on misunderstandings and on fantasies about each other and about each other's history. This is another aspect of a tragedy - that conflicts build up as a result of mistaken interpretation. The violence that broke out after [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon's 2000 visit to the Temple Mount is a good example of a tragedy. He came to visit - he wanted to create a controversy, but he didn't want to create what came afterward - and there was a reaction. The Palestinians said, "What is he up to? Let's go and defend ourselves." But at first they didn't go, in spite of all the calls on [Palestinian Authority] television and radio for them to rally there, most of them did not. So, there you have - what? - 30-40 Arab Muslims and Sharon and the police. Now, imagine you're sitting in Yemen or Morocco or Malaysia and following the news. Suddenly you say, "My God, it's true; the Israelis defile Islam." Meanwhile, here, there are the ordinary people who feel guilty because not many of them [went to the Temple Mount to protest]. They didn't come on Wednesday or Thursday, so they prepare to come on Friday, when they go to pray anyway. So, of course, the Israeli police get worried, because they're also working on the same kind of wavelength. You could actually sense the electrified atmosphere in the city that day. And when the atmosphere is electrified, the tiniest thing sparks things off. Two arguments can be made in response to your version of events: The first is that Sharon received permission from [former PA Preventive Security Service chief] Jibril Rajoub to go up to the Temple Mount that day. The second is that, according to Palestinian Media Watch research, the Palestinian leadership had been planning a second "intifada" for nearly a year prior to Sharon's visit. Whether or not you agree with these arguments, one point you seem to overlook when you describe the conflict as one of mutual "misunderstanding": After Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, it was not only Palestinians who berated him for it. The Israeli elite, the media - and even much of the public - accused Sharon of having provoked the violence that ensued. How often do the Palestinians criticize their own leaders? I disagree with the first part. As for the second, here you're talking about something different. I was basically taking the position that regardless of what people's intentions are at the level of leadership, if one looks at the ordinary people, on the whole, I would suggest that events unfold not as the result of conspiracy, but of a series of misunderstandings - which is what a tragedy is. But now, you're telling me, "Look, we Israelis are different from you Palestinians." It's true. You are. Nobody disagrees. One of the characteristics of the Jewish or the Israeli population is that they are capable of making judgments that are a little bit self-critical. They don't necessarily fall into the trap of building up a certain stereotype of the other side. They're prepared to stand back and judge. The fact that they have a major Peace Now movement - the fact that they can be critical of their government - illustrates this. The Palestinians, on the other hand, don't seem to be able to this. Why? One of the reasons may be that you Israelis are far more evolved, in terms of your internal political system, economic productivity and experience. You have concerts, and you have artists, and you have gays coming out to demonstrate for gay rights. We don't have that. Is there something in the difference you describe that stems from religion? Talmudic discourse is based on a form of argumentation - of challenging rabbis, and even God. Is Islam more inherently submissive to Allah and to religious leaders than Judaism? I'm not a scholar of Judaism or of Islam, but it depends on what sort of mind-set you start out with. If you already have a submissive mind-set, you will take what comes from your religion to reinforce it. But if you have developed the ability to be self-critical and free in your mind, you will also address yours and other religions in the same way. It also has to do with various political factors, among them the fact that the Palestinians are under occupation. I am not saying this is the reason why we don't seem to be as self-critical or as democratic as Israelis. But it definitely plays a role. The fact that we feel worried and concerned. The fear. The suspicion. When one feels he is under fire, part of his fear spills into being suspicious of what other people are saying. You say that Israelis "have concerts and artists and gays coming out to demonstrate for gay rights." Are these not the fruits of democratic state-building? And of time. The Zionists began the endeavor of institution-building even before the State of Israel was established in 1948. Would the Arabs in Palestine have been building similar institutions had the Jewish state not been established? Are you asking whether we, by ourselves, would have developed the notion of Palestinian identity - and therefore pursued the aim of establishing a state in which we could express this national identity in the same way that the Jews did? We, as a people, were not born with an identity. Most peoples - the Jews are an exception, so let's put them aside for a moment - develop their national identities and then begin to look upon themselves as nations needing to be embodied in the form of a state. We Palestinians are no different. And one of the things that helped us forge our sense of identity as a nation was the fact that the Jews - the people we confronted in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century - were a community or a group wishing to have a state with their own identity. You know, I have a great-great-great-great-great grandfather who is buried in a mausoleum in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Mamilla. If you had asked him, "Are you a Palestinian?" he would probably have answered, "What do you mean, a Palestinian? No, I belong to the Muslim nation." But you see, what I believe you Israelis might actually be doing in asking that question is drawing the conclusion - the wrong one, in my opinion - that because we were not born one or five or six thousand years ago with an identity, we do not have an identity, or even rights. On the contrary. Let's assume it makes no difference what gives the Palestinians a sense of national identity or how recently they acquired that sense. Let's say it's totally legitimate. Then let's imagine that we remove the proclaimed obstacle - namely "occupation" - to independent Palestinian statehood. The question is: Would the Palestinians be building highways and concert halls and art galleries? As a state, you mean? Presumably, yes. But suppose, for instance, that we did have our own state, and suppose this state had been created when Israel was created... If the Arabs had agreed to partition, you mean? Yes. And suppose we and Israel had nothing to do with one another. We probably would have developed just the way that the rest of the Arab world developed. We probably would have been just as backward as the rest of the Arab states. We would have produced a state with all of the problems that Arab states have. But, everything seems to have a positive as well as a negative side. Our interaction with Israel has had a major negative impact on us, without question. But what Palestinians don't realize is that it has also had a positive impact. Although we came to suffer as a result of this interaction with Israelis and the Jewish people, we learned a lot. We learned a lot from you; we learned a lot about you; and we learned a lot through you about the rest of the world. And that's very important, and a major source of power, as far as we are concerned. In other words, seeing Israel not in the sense that is normally depicted - namely, as a dagger in the heart of the Arab world - but as a bridge to the rest of the world is something the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab peoples are in need of. We need this bridge between ourselves and the rest of the world. This is something one should be aware of as one looks to the future. Has the Arab world treated the Palestinian people fairly? There are governments and there are people. The Arab people in general have been extremely supportive and have identified themselves with the Palestinians. The governments have not. What about private individuals? If you use the Zionist endeavor as an example, you can see there are many Jews abroad giving a great deal of money to help. You don't see that phenomenon in the Arab world, do you? That's almost a rhetorical question. Everybody knows that, as far as the Arab-Muslim world is concerned, the tradition and culture of individuals like [American-Jewish businessman well-known for buying up properties in east Jerusalem for settler groups] Irwin Moskowitz is not mirrored in the Arab or Muslim tradition. You might have the odd charity here or there, but not this sort of fervor or appreciation of the needs that people have here. As the president of an Arab institution of higher learning, do you agree with the frequently stated claim that the Palestinians are the most educated population in the Arab world? I've heard it, but I doubt it - from looking around. It is quite possible that statistically Palestinians have more degrees - that more of them finish high school, and that among them there are more females attending school. But education goes much deeper than that. It has to do with what you learn and how you're taught, not merely whether you go to school. In that respect, I think we're more backward [than other Arabs] in many ways. So, though I'm not sure about the level of Palestinian education, I am aware of the fact that we boast about ourselves a lot [he laughs]. It's extremely depressing, given all the boasting; given the hopes that we therefore have about being able to build up our own state; and given the fact that we went to the Gulf and helped others build their states, yet when it came to our own, we proved to be total failures. In the prologue of your book, you say that one of the reasons you wrote this memoir had to do with your father, who was eternally hopeful. You quote him saying that "rubble often makes the best building material." There's a difference between hope and faith. Hope is something that the Palestinians can't afford to have, because hope is often a reflection of reason - you know, you look at things objectively, list the pros and cons and then reach a kind of rational conclusion. Faith is different. It is with faith that you can "build out of rubble" - that you can do magic. Transform. Take control of your life and your environment. In that sense, I have faith that, sooner or later, somehow or another - I'm not sure how - Jews and Arabs will find a way to live together that is totally acceptable and beneficial to us both. In doing this, we can also impact the region around us and, further afield, the world around us. If you and Ami Ayalon, with whom you launched "The People's Voice" peace campaign - or you and [renowned author] Amos Oz, who you say in your book was raised "no more than a 100 feet away" from you, yet with whom you only became familiar decades later at peace rallies - could create an ideal region here, what would it look like? I don't really know how to answer this. But the most important thing is for each side of [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] to have total respect for one another's dignity and space. If you start out with that, you can work miracles - whether the political structure ends up being two states or one state or a confederation between states or a conglomeration of city states, or I don't know what. But you have to have... Acceptance? Not acceptance in the sense of "OK, we accept you because we have to." That's not accepting, right? You have to accept in the deeper sense of the word. I've come across many people in my life - whether Israelis, Palestinians, Americans or others - with whom, if you sit with them and begin to have a conversation, you feel there's mutual respect. And then there are people with whom you feel there's no mutual respect. I know from experience that with the latter, you will not be able to establish the kind of political agreement that is required here. If you go back to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations: We have people on our side who are very clever, and people on the Israeli side who are very clever, but who might, when they sit at the table, not come to an agreement because of the absence of this basic requirement - one which needn't exist when negotiating a business transaction. But you do need it when you're negotiating peace, because what you're creating is made up of human beings. And the human element has to be incorporated into every step taken along the way. How would you rate [former prime minister] Ehud Barak on this score? Among Israelis, there are two views of his performance at Camp David: one that he genuinely tried to make a deal with [PA chairman Yasser] Arafat, and the other that he was trying to show up Arafat's bluff. What's your view? I can't give you an answer about this particular controversy, but I wouldn't discount the possibility that Barak really wanted a deal. I wouldn't necessarily assume that it was a ploy. But it's not enough to want to reach an agreement. You also have to have the right psychological attitude toward the other person - in how you deal with, listen and make him sense your respect for him. I don't think Barak was good at that. And Arafat? Didn't he make it impossible for anybody to trust him? My own personal feeling about Arafat is that he really did want to make peace with Israel. But he didn't know how to go about doing it. What he did - sign the Oslo Accords - was historic. Nobody should minimize the importance of that. The fact that he was able ideologically to bring everybody behind him to be prepared to make peace with Israel was very, very important. Unfortunately, neither side dealt with that the way we should have. I've often likened Oslo to a baby given birth by both parties. But then, after giving birth to it, the two sides did not look after it, and allowed it to die. Still, the fact that they gave birth to it is of historical importance. Is the global war between radical Islam and the West that erupted - or became apparent - after 9/11 a reflection of what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians or a result of it? Do you believe that the Palestinian struggle is the root cause of outside unrest - or is it the other way around? There are two schools of thought about this. Let's hope that one of the major sources of the overall global problems is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Why should we hope that? Because it's a very focused conflict and we can solve it. If doing so then solves the global conflict, we'd all be very happy. Whereas, if we assume that we have to solve the global conflict first, we're going to have a long wait [he laughs]. But I'm not sure how things work, to tell you the truth. And I'm not sure that there's an answer that makes sense. But, regardless of what the real answer is, we should focus on our own problems, tend to our own garden. We have a common garden, and we can grow it together. It's not impossible. We almost did it at Oslo, and we can do it again. If, as a result, there are positive influences on the rest of the world, so much the better. But we don't have to think about that. We Israelis and Palestinians need to think only about our own garden. We live in the same neighborhood, so to speak, and it is our responsibility, duty and in our interest to try to create a neighborhood that's livable for both peoples. Is your book being published in Arabic and Hebrew, as well? I hope the publisher will find a local Arab publisher to handle it. I believe they've found someone for the Hebrew edition, because there's a Hebrew publisher which handled my last book [No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Solution of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict; Hill & Wand, 1991]. But I wrote that book with [Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies'] Mark Heller, and at the time, the Arab publishers thought it wasn't kosher to have an Israeli writer on the cover. That was in 1990-91. I think, today, they'll be able to find an [Arab] publisher. You received glowing reviews in the American press. No doubt the Hebrew press will be equally positive. In the event that the book comes out in Arabic, what kind of review could you expect from [the official PA daily] Al-Hayat al-Jedida? On the whole, people in my own community have been openly critical in the past. That's when they expressed any intellectual enthusiasm. If they wanted to be generous, they were mainly silent. Every now and again, you will find the odd positive article in newspapers like the one you mentioned. But I don't think people will come out on my side, saying, "Wow, how great!" I think mostly they will be silent, but I'm not sure. So, a book like this is greeted warmly in the West, but the best you can hope for among your own people is silence? What does that tell you about the chances for your message of reconciliation taking hold in your community? And why, then, are you creating a kind of parity between the two peoples? I started out by saying there's no parity. We are totally different societies, with different values, different concerns and different cultural traditions. But look, in my own society - regardless of what kind of reviews I get - I know that I'm very respected and liked, among my students, for instance, which is much more important. But these are normal people. The reticence lies at the level of the reviewers and the intellectuals. Are the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs part of the same people? Well, yes, they are and they aren't. The Israeli Arabs are Palestinians in one sense, but they're very much Israeli in another. They look upon themselves as Israelis; they see themselves as part of Israel, which is peculiar. For instance, if you went to an Israeli Arab - Muslim or Christian - and said, "Look, in a future agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we are going to be able to include where you're living in a Palestinian state," he'd probably say, "No thank you; go away." [he laughs] If you were to ask him why, he'd say, "This [Israel] is my country. This is my state. I've grown up here. I like it here. And I look at you over there, and I don't like what I see." And, you know, I don't blame them. We Palestinians have not succeeded in creating something of which we can be proud, or which can be attractive. So, why should anybody wish to come and live here? An Israeli Arab - regardless of everything else that he might feel - feels that [in Israel] the law protects him. That he has rights as an individual. Come what may, it's a system; it's a state; it has elections; democracy; protects the women. We on the Palestinian side haven't been able to create anything like that. Come to think of it, if I were to be asked what I need a state for, I would say that it is primarily to see ways in which the needs and rights of the individual are addressed. I didn't fight for a Palestinian state for anything else. If a Palestinian state doesn't provide me with this, I don't want it. This may be one basic difference between me and the Jews, who might want a state for other reasons. I want a state that will give me respect; that will recognize my dignity, make me feel equal; to develop; to grow; to feel that I'm able to practice and develop my abilities. Are you saying this is not the reason that Jews created a state? They had many reasons for creating a state, and one of them was that. But they had other reasons, as well: the problem of anti-Semitism and what it led to in Europe. There are also religious components to the whole exercise. I, as a Palestinian, don't have all those things I mentioned, which is why I don't call myself a fervent nationalist. Is it possible that behind the Palestinians' inability to create a state of the kind you describe is an emphasis on victimhood, rather than on personal responsibility for improving their own lives? I agree that we complain a lot and that we are not exercising control of our lives in a rational way. I think we have reached a point where we can translate the problem we are complaining about into something that's soluble and go ahead and solve it with our own hands. Do you see any resolution in sight to the civil war that's going on between Fatah and Hamas? That's hard to say. The question is: What does Hamas stand for? What does Fatah stand for? In other words, they could end up coming to an agreement on the radical aspects of their ideologies. Is there an option for a third entity arising to replace both of them? This is like the chicken and the egg. Let's hypothesize that the Israeli government comes to the Palestinians and makes an offer. And let's say the offer is the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement [based on Israel's withdrawal to the '67 borders, Jerusalem as a shared capital and no right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel]. But Israel will not sign such an agreement just like that. It needs to know that the Palestinians really want it. In which case, they have to have a representative government or party that will do it. Now, in that context, I think a Palestinian party could arise which is prepared to represent the people for that particular agreement - and which is prepared to run for elections on that platform. I even think such a party would win the elections. Do you actually believe that a Palestinian running on a platform of peace with Israel and no right of return would win an election in the PA? Yes, if there is an Israeli offer. The trouble so far has been that Fatah hasn't been clear, which hasn't been good either for the Palestinians or the Israelis. And you actually believe that in such an event, terrorism and warfare would be kept at bay? Absolutely. So, you don't think the problem, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, is the very existence of the State of Israel? No.