The Happy Arab News Service

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Once Upon a Country

Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University, with Ruthie Blum on his new book (You don't have to agree NB)

The Jerusalem Post

Apr. 26, 2007

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?


So, you don't think the problem, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, is the very existence of the State of Israel?


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