Intellectual on the sidelines

Despite his unsuccessful peacemaking efforts, Palestinian philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh remains an enduring moderate

Sari Nusseibeh521 (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT / FLASH 90)
Sari Nusseibeh521
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT / FLASH 90)
For some three decades now, Sari Nusseibeh has been a leading Palestinian peacemaker, an independent-minded academic proposing one peace plan after another, and certainly no stone thrower – the perfect example of the kind of Palestinian leader, flexible and creative, the Israelis have been seeking.
Yet today, dismissed by most Israeli leaders as a troublemaker disguised as a peacenik, and isolated by Palestinian leaders for seeking peace a tad too energetically, Nusseibeh, now 64, is an intellectual on the sidelines, with a next-to-nothing chance of becoming the Palestinian leader the Israelis say they are seeking to help make peace.
So pragmatic has Nusseibeh been that in the 1970s, recognizing that the Palestinians had lost the 1967 Six Day War, he favored a onestate solution with Israelis and Palestinians living together in a political entity he named Palistel. “At the time,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I wasn’t thinking of anything serious, of any program. I wasn’t thinking of anything. But I thought that [one state] would be a good direction in which to go.”
Sensing, however, a tide of nationalist feeling among his fellow Palestinians in the 1980s, he “realized that what people wanted was freedom and independence and their own state, nothing else, not one state, not being under Jordan, but their own state.”
Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and its 12,000-strong student body since 1995, met with me at his office in Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood.
The courtyard of the administration building had no sign identifying it as part of Al- Quds. Smoking one cigarette after the other, his shock of white hair his most prominent feature, Nusseibeh answered questions matter-of-factly, without the bitterness that other Palestinians exhibit. Admitting that he did not enjoy running the university very much, he did derive great satisfaction, he said, from teaching philosophy courses at the school. Dressed casually, he wore a gray, long-sleeved shirt that hung over his pants, and sandals.
His true love, Nusseibeh notes, is living what he calls, “the life of the mind,” and his intellectual acuity has been globally recognized. A 2008 poll conducted by the US Foreign Policy magazine placed him 24th on a list of the 100 most influential intellectuals in the world. He is a member of one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most distinguished families, which can trace its roots back to 638 CE, when Caliph Omar entered the Holy City. Exemplifying the intricate ironies of life in Jerusalem, to this day, the Muslim Nusseibeh family has charge of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City, the purported site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Born in Damascus just as Israel’s War of Independence was winding down, after his mother left Ramle for Lebanon and then moved to Syria, Nusseibeh spent his childhood in Jerusalem and graduated in 1966 from the city’s St. George’s School; from 1968 to 1971, he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University.
Though he would go on to become the most enduring and recognized Palestinian moderate to emerge since the Six Day War, Nusseibeh held an unsurprisingly hostile view of Israel during his childhood.
“Growing up, my attitude toward Israel was that they have robbed my family of the kind of life that they had in Ramle and Jerusalem,” he tells The Report. “Therefore, the Israelis were our sworn enemies.”
As he speaks these words today, Nusseibeh’s calm tones make him sound more reasonable than belligerent.
Armed with his Oxford degree, Nusseibeh hoped to get married – to Lucia Austin, an English woman he had met at Oxford – but that would have required his family’s financial support while continuing his studies towards a doctorate; he did not want that. And so he took a job in 1973, the same year he married Lucia, and worked for two years for an oil company in Abu Dhabi. Thereafter, he and Lucia left the Gulf state, “after deciding that I could not make the millions that I thought I should make.” The Nusseibehs have three sons: Jamal, 36, Absal, 33, and Buraq, 31, and a daughter, Nuzha, 21.
Sari Nusseibeh’s political moderation did not come to him overnight. As far back as the early 1970s, he took the unusual step of trying to get to know Israelis. “I wanted to find out who these guys were,” he recalls. “I wanted to get as close to them as I could.”
He had a purpose in mind. He believed that Palestinians might have to learn to live with Israelis despite their political differences.
Nusseibeh had already struck up relationships with Israeli students at Oxford, including with philosopher Avishai Margalit; but he sought out experiences that would allow him to spend a good deal of time with Israelis. In the early 1970s therefore, he spent a month on Kibbutz Hazorea in northern Israel, arranged through the intervention of his father, Anwar, a longtime senior Jordanian official and, like his son, a Palestinian moderate.
Nusseibeh found living among the kibbutzniks exhilarating. “I loved the Israelis there. I loved them,” he says. “And they welcomed me warmly. I tried to see them as much as possible in a neutral way.
Therefore, I came to appreciate a lot of what they stood for.”
Rather than engage in turbulent debates, he and the kibbutzniks sat for hours quietly discussing kibbutz-related issues. His own Palestinian family and friends knew nothing of his foray into Israeli life. “I had no worries. I have lived a life of total naiveté in which I entertain no worries,” he says.
Intrigued by Israeli archeologists working around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, Nusseibeh also spent a month in the company of Israelis at the dig site – again with his father smoothing the way for him.
In 1978, and with a leaning toward an academic life (“I was drawn to the life of the mind”), Nusseibeh completed his doctorate in Islamic philosophy at Harvard University.
His thesis focused on Persian philosopher Ibn Sina. Returning to Jerusalem that same year, he taught philosophy and cultural studies at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.
In 1979, still trying to get to know Israelis better, he also taught at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Initially, Nusseibeh had no desire to get involved in Palestinian-Israeli political issues; nonetheless, he found himself increasingly drawn into the fray, noting, “one thing led to another.” The turning point came when the Israeli government issued Order 854, which essentially gave Israel full control over the West Bank’s higher education system. Under Order 854, the Israel Defense Forces, viewing the schools as a potential threat, gained full control over who could enter a university.
Believing that Order 854 infringed upon basic academic freedom, Nusseibeh resisted. “That,” he says “was one of the first opposition campaigns against the Israeli occupation. For me, it was full of excitement.
When I saw the Israelis issuing this order, my inner sense immediately rebelled.”
His next venture into politics that brought a concomitant rise in his stature occurred in 1979, when he became head of the Faculty Union at Bir Zeit and established the federation of all Faculty Unions at various Palestinian universities. Developing a taste for organizing people, he recalls, “The grassroots power that existed, existed within the federation.” He drifted from the unions in the early 1980s, devoting himself increasingly to peacemaking efforts.
In 1984, Nusseibeh joined Palestinian colleagues for a ground-breaking (but nonetheless secret) meeting with Israeli Zionists at Harvard, initiated by Harvard Professor of Social Ethics Herbert Kelman.
Until then, Palestinians had been willing to meet only with non-Zionists. As a follow up to the Harvard session, 40 Israelis and Palestinians held a public meeting at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, but the initiative came to nothing.
In that same year, and in an effort to “shock” both sides now that the Israeli occupation had lasted 17 years, Nusseibeh proposed two out-of-the-box ideas. One, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem should become Israeli citizens; and two, Israel should annex the West Bank. “I wanted to draw attention to the two possible outcomes of the deadlock – either two states now or one state later on,” Nusseibeh says. The proposal was so remote from the conventional wisdom among Palestinians that they should seek and gain their own state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that Nusseibeh’s suggestions went nowhere.
When the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, Nusseibeh wrote some of its key pamphlets. Though the media portrayed him as one of the intifada’s intellectual leaders, he insisted in our interview that he took part in writing messages, some of them in Hebrew and addressed to Israeli soldiers, to make sure the Israelis understood that “we sought our freedom, not their destruction.”
In parallel, he developed contacts with Israeli peace groups. Also in 1987, Nusseibeh’s peacemaking efforts appeared to be more promising when he worked with Israelis in Geneva preparing a document outlining an interim agreement that would lead to a two-state solution. The idea was that Yasser Arafat would endorse the document publicly, thus jumpstarting peace talks.
In telling the story, rather than portraying Arafat, as Israelis usually did in those days, as a long-standing extremist, always torpedoing peace talks, Nusseibeh describes the Palestinian leader as genuinely in favor of continuing the Geneva talks despite what Nusseibeh thought was a lack of Israeli seriousness. When Nusseibeh’s Palestinian colleague, Faisal Husseini, was arrested, a step that Nusseibeh believes was taken to torpedo the talks, Arafat told him, “In battles, you lose colleagues but you don’t stop. You continue fighting. You are fighting for an agreement. You should continue with the contacts with the Israeli side.” To Nusseibeh’s chagrin, the Israeli government backed out of the Geneva talks.
Why have Nusseibeh’s and all other Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives fizzled? It is a question that he has been asked and has asked himself many times. “I have a sound bite that describes the situation. History moves faster than ideas. History is cleverer than the cleverest of politicians,” he remarks.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are at fault, he argues, due to their preoccupation with what he calls “acts on the ground” that make progress toward peace impossible. The fault of the Palestinians is their “preoccupation with rank, with symbols, with glory, at the expense of devoting themselves to the hard work required [for peace].” And, says Nusseibeh, “this is the same with the Israelis.”
While it seemed to make no sense for Israel to incarcerate a leading Palestinian peacemaker, the IDF arrested Nusseibeh for three months during the Gulf War in 1991, as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Israeli territory. The IDF claimed that Nusseibeh was spying for Iraq and directing Scud attacks against Israel. Palestinians viewed his arrest as evidence that in jailing a leading Palestinian moderate, the Israelis were not serious about peace.
Though Nusseibeh might have seemed a natural member of the Palestinian team that negotiated with Israeli counterparts the 1993 In 2001, Arafat appointed Nusseibeh as the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative in Jerusalem, despite his reluctance to take up the post and be involved in politics at the time. The appointment reinforced the idea that he was both a Palestinian insider and outsider, making it hard for some Palestinians and Israelis to know where the self-professed independent Nusseibeh stood on political issues. In July 2002, when Nusseibeh was in Greece, the IDF, presumably annoyed at Nusseibeh’s seemingly cozy relations with Arafat, seized his files and changed the lock on his office door, claiming it was an official Palestinian Authority office. Nusseibeh signed an affidavit affirming that Al-Quds University was not an affiliate of the PA, leading an Israeli court to rescind the order that had allowed for the seizure of Nusseibeh’s files and the closing of his office. The following December, Arafat replaced him as the PLO representative in Jerusalem with himself.
During 2002, Nusseibeh undertook his boldest peacemaking initiative, teaming up with Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), in seeking a million signatures from Israelis and Palestinians to endorse a six-point peace plan that called for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s 1967 borders. According to the plan, Palestinians, under their right of return, could live only in a Palestinian state, and Jerusalem’s sovereignty would be shared.
Not at all the top-down approach that had been tried unsuccessfully for decades, the new Nusseibeh-Ayalon grass-roots initiative was designed to force Palestinian and Israeli leaders to respond favorably to this groundswell for peace. “There was a feeling,” Nusseibeh recalls, “that maybe Arafat and (then prime minister Ariel) Sharon needed prodding by the people for a two-state solution.” Arafat, in Nusseibeh’s view, privately hoped peacemaking efforts would succeed, “but he was constantly under pressure – both from his own critics within the Palestinian community and from Israeli intransigence.”
The arrest by the Israeli authorities of a fellow Palestinian activist in December 2002 led Nusseibeh to announce publicly that he was ending his peacemaking efforts. As Palestinian suicide bombers continued their deadly acts leading to an Israeli incursion into the West Bank, the violence turned the Nusseibeh-Ayalon signature campaign into little more than a failed footnote. In the end, only 100,000 Israelis and 70,000 Palestinians signed the document.
When Ararat died in November 2004, Nusseibeh felt a slight ray of hope that his successor might intensify peace efforts.
Indeed, Nusseibeh interpreted the election of Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), as a clear Palestinian vote for a two-state solution; consequently, Nusseibeh felt he could keep his own peacemaking efforts on a low flame.
“Unfortunately,” says a disappointed Nusseibeh, “both before and after Abu Mazen’s election, matters seemed to go in the wrong direction, as they continue to do so today. That is what I mean by history running faster than ideas. On the one hand, people claim they have ideas; but on the other, their day-to-day behavior makes those ideas impossible to bring about.”
When Nusseibeh’s 2008 memoir, “Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life,” appeared, reviewers offered flattering remarks, calling him the “ultimate insider,” and praising him for his “relatively evenhanded stance.” What impressed the reviewers above all else was his articulate reasoning in favor of a two-state solution.
Again, trying to think out of the box, Nusseibeh made one final attempt at mediation, writing a letter in 2009 to newly elected US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace, former US senator George Mitchell. In the letter, Nusseibeh suggested the new envoy organize a meeting at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel with Obama and Israeli and Palestinian leaders attending. At the meeting, Obama would present an American peace plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking the Israelis and Palestinians to sell the plan to their constituents via an Israeli referendum and Palestinian elections.
Mitchell did not reply.
At one point supporting a one-state solution, but later favoring a two-state one, he now acknowledges that he is non-committal over how many states there should be. He seeks, he says, under whatever format, Palestinian freedom and equality. “Anything we have thought of so far is not going to work,” he says. “Whether it is in one or two or three or four states, or a confederation, we will need time for ideas to develop. That’s why I say history moves faster than ideas.”
In his view, the facts on the ground are leading to a one-state solution and that is why he argues, “We need to think of more imaginative ways [to solve the conflict].
I hope that in the meantime, peace will be maintained, that pain will be minimized on both sides.”
With none of his peacemaking bearing fruit, does Nusseibeh feel the conflict might be resolved soon? “Not anytime in the near future,” he says with much sadness. “But I’m optimistic in the sense that sooner or later, we’re about to find a way. We have no choice.” 