Sari Nusseibeh Advocates Peace — At Least at CUNY
It’s a strange experience to attend a panel discussion at the City University of New York (CUNY) with a former PLO representative who served under Yasser Arafat — and to find him more restrained in his language and optimistic about the current Arab-Israeli stalemate than either his fellow panelist or the audience.
Such was the case with Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy and the former president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who joined journalist Dan Ephron at CUNY’s Leon Levy Center for a panel on Israel.
The center’s director, author Kai Bird, hosted the discussion. It focused on Nusseibeh’s autobiography, Once Upon a Country, A Palestinian Life, and Ephron’s biography of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. The Elebash Recital Hall was filled to capacity, with an older crowd of approximately 200 people.
Nusseibeh is widely credited in politically-correct circles with being a moderate, but he has been called out for extremist speeches that he’s delivered exclusively to Arab audiences. Palestinians have a long history of speaking one way to Western audiences, and another to the “Arab street.” Nusseibeh understood explicitly which audience he was addressing at CUNY.
He began by relating how he jumped over a wall separating Palestinian and Israeli territory as a youth in 1967, and walked through Israel for the first time. It was “the most important walk in my life,” he explained. “To cross the distance between that which is you … and that which is the other… I think that is what made me … always trying to see the other side.”
Nusseibeh recounted how Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet, knocked on his office door at al-Quds University in 2002 looking to build grassroots support for a peace deal. By the end of 2003, the two had collected a total of 200,000 Israeli and Palestinian signatures. “There’s no single document that was signed by so many Palestinians and Israelis,” Nusseibeh stated proudly.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “things happened elsewhere that made the situation worse,” including the death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (who was “quite possibly assassinated,” he noted conspiratorially). Nevertheless, observing that Palestinians and Israelis “live in contiguity with one another,” Nusseibeh concluded hopefully that “sooner or later enough, people with good sense on both sides . . . will again make a difference.”
The first question from the audience set a combative tone for the Q&A. With mockery in his voice, a man asked, “What is your opinion on the outlook of President Trump making . . . progress on the peace process? And what do the people of Israel think of him?” Some in the audience erupted in jeers and laughter.
Dan Ephron replied by accusing the Trump team of exuding “a kind of simplicity” regarding the peace process. Answering another question, he claimed that Israeli “apartheid” was instrumental in causing Rabin to pursue peace.
The audience responded with sardonic laughter, while someone huffed, “Israel is an apartheid state.”
Nusseibeh countered that a considerable number of Israelis are receptive to compromise with the Palestinians. Many in the Israeli military establishment “who are not peaceniks … understand reality, the challenges Israel faces,” he said. Nusseibeh believes that they have the “self-confidence” to make “compromises … needed to reach peace.”
As for the Palestinian side, Nusseibeh claimed that those most ready to make peace with Israel are the ones who “fought with Israel” and “spent … years in jail.” He said that they “came out [of jail] fluent in Hebrew and knowledgeable about their enemy. … [I]n the same way … their interrogators also came to know them very well.”
“And you must always remember that ours is the land of miracles; miracles can happen,” he maintained. At that point, an audience member shouted, “Look at South Africa!”
Nusseibeh ended by counseling patience in resolving a conflict that has lasted “a hundred years almost,” adding that there should be no rush to do something “dramatic” or “overnight,” especially when “our lives and the lives of our children” are at stake.
While the particulars of Nusseibeh’s remarks are highly debatable, they were a welcome contrast to the denunciations of Israel that dominate the American Middle East studies establishment on college campuses. His familiarity with the key players in the region, and his recognition of Israel’s security needs, elevated a topic that is too often marked by hostility and rigidity. But does Nusseibeh possess the strength of character to deliver the same message to his fellow Palestinians?
Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.