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Denebola » Article » Once Upon A Country
Book Review

Once Upon A Country

By Marshall Cohen
Published: September 2007

Author: Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David

Governments frequently dehumanize their enemies in times of war. It is the only way that soldiers and politicians can overcome their basic human instincts to engage in the inhuman and inhumane actions that war demands.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged for over half a century now, and both sides have gone far down the road of dehumanizing the other in order to more effectively continue the struggle. Israeli soldiers are compared to Nazis and Palestinian “gunmen” appear faceless and devoid of the human characteristics that might allow us to empathize with them and consider their plight. Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiographical story of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle runs against this trend.    

It is a refreshingly personal account of events told from the point of view of an intellectually rigorous child of both the 1960′s and of a respected Palestinian family of ancient times. Professor Nusseibeh is exactly my age. The photographs that he includes in the book could have been ripped from my own family album. Comparing albums one can see his hair and my hair expand to ethnic versions of the “Afro” at the same moments in time and predictably turn to thinning mounds of white at another.

We are living the same life in a parallel universe, but he is a Palestinian, and I am a Jew. His relatives controlled the land for many years, and my relatives came new onto the scene, escaping from certain death in Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps his life story is the missing narrative piece that gives definition to my rather flat understanding of events in the Middle East as I was growing up.

This book is a worthwhile read to enhance our understanding of that part of the world, and our own lives.

Although Professor Nusseibeh lived most of his life within fifty miles of East Jerusalem, he also lived for many years in both Britain and the United States. He was educated at Oxford (P.P.E., Politics, Philosophy, and Economics), and married a fellow Oxford student, Lucy Austin, daughter of a notable Oxford don, who converted to Islam and agreed to return home with him. They also lived in the Boston area both during graduate studies at Harvard and during a recent Radcliffe Institute fellowship.

Both have a strong commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Professor Nusseibeh’s roots in Jerusalem go deep. His parents were substantial people. His father was a western-educated adviser to King Hussein of Jordan, and a man held in high esteem by the Palestinian community of East Jerusalem. His mother was active and politically sophisticated as well. Both parents had a strong influence on their son who showed a more philosophical than political orientation.

Sari Nusseibeh became an academic, first at Hebrew University where he learned to like and respect Jewish intellectuals with whom he frequently interacted, and then at Birzeit University where he witnessed the growing influence of the Islamist movement among students. Inexorably, he was pulled into politics, first as a leader of the university faculty and eventually as a personal envoy of Yasir Arafat.

He had a strong tendency to stake out positions that were elegant and ethically sound: a proclivity that isolated him from most of the groups in the Palestinian political scene. Usually he was condemned by all sides as a maverick, who was a “traitor” to “the cause.” At one point he was badly beaten and almost killed by students who were in the employ of the Jordanian secret police.

Unlike most political leaders, when Professor Nusseibeh saw examples of behavior that he found to be morally indefensible, he would condemn the activity–no matter which side the perpetrator was on. Thus, he tended to publicly condemn bombings that resulted in civilian deaths even if they were the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers as well as well-planned assassinations by right wing Israeli paramilitary groups.

This even-handedness made him no friends in any camp. Shin Bet, the Israeli security force, was highly suspicious of him, and his own people saw him as an unreliable ally.

The backdrop to the story of Professor Nusseibeh’s ideological evolution is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the 1967 War, through Camp David and the antifadas. The reader of his memoir can see how world events caused changes in his outlook. Always a realist, Professor Nusseibeh took the position of pushing for Palestinian rights within a democratic Israel to illustrate the fact that Jews themselves wanted a two-state solution, even while Israeli leaders dragged their feet at the implementation of such an outcome.

Professor Nusseibeh is quite candid about his frustration at Palestinian behavior that exacerbated Israeli foot dragging: the sporadic violence and, particularly, the corruption among traditional elites. His posturing leads to both increased scrutiny by Shin Bet, and death threats from fellow Palestinians who refuse to give up the goal of a Palestinian state encompassing the entire area of present day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Always a favorite of Arafat and a small faction within the PLO (when the need arose to put an academic face to the organization), Professor Nusseibeh was enlisted in a number of peace initiatives. At one point, he was approached by a former Israeli security chief who wanted a back door channel to peace negotiations with the PLO. Israeli politicians affiliated with both Labor and Likud similarly try to take advantage of his connections within the PLO to work with him, when the opportunity suited them, to open back channel talks. Arafat always encouraged these discussions but never acknowledged Nusseibeh publicly.

As one can imagine, this state of affairs was extremely frustrating. Finally, in 1994, Professor Nusseibeh resigned his role as back channel yo-yo and took on an academic job as the head of Al-Quds University. As a private citizen he began work on a two-state solution to the conflict in conjunction with allies on the Israeli left, primarily Peace Now. Israelis wanted both security and a Jewish state, and Palestinians wanted freedom from occupation.

All told, his solution was relatively straightforward: two states, more or less divided along the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as the capital of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Palestinians had to acknowledge the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and to renounce the blanket “right of return” to Israel of refugees.

Professor Nusseibeh became a marked man with this proposal. Palestinians were furious that he “gave up” the sacred cow of the right of return. Shin Bet also saw him as dangerous, “the most dangerous Palestinian we have…a wolf in sheep’s clothing” said one security man during a routine interrogation.

It is Professor Nusseibeh’s contention throughout the book that the fate of Israelis and Palestinians is linked and that no erstwhile allies truly understand this – neither the Americans nor neighboring Arab states. Therefore, he contends, there is no alternative to real peace talks. Without them there will never be peace. Israel can only have a democratic Jewish state if it helps bring into being a Palestinian state.

The extremist camps of Palestinians and Israelis are curiously linked, he argues. Neither group truly wants a Palestinian state to come into existence: the Israelis because they wish to expand territorially into the West Bank, and the Palestinians because they refuse to accept the reality of Israeli existence. Professor Nusseibeh believes that a silent majority of both peoples would assent to a plebiscite along terms that he outlined above, but he believes that they will not have the opportunity to do so because of the agreement among Israeli and Palestinian extremists to avoid this.

Indeed, a strong current running through the book is that the Israeli government cynically and consistently encouraged Palestinian radicals as an alternative to dealing with moderates.

Early on, they encouraged and possibly funded Islamist student groups who were originally against political action in order to weaken the more secular and activist Fatah groups–only to see them evolve into Hamas and become politicized. When radical groups resorted to violence, Shin Bet would ignore the perpetrators, the author contends, and retaliate against the moderates.

He pointedly accuses Ariel Sharon, in particular, of goading Palestinians to actions of disorganized violence, to which, much to Professor Nusseibeh’s dismay, they invariably responded.

While acknowledging Arafat’s weaknesses, he delineates a portrait of a moderate trying to balance the pressures of a myriad of Palestinian factions. It is clear that Professor Nusseibeh has great personal affection for Arafat, even while seeing his failings as a leader.

The problem with the book is precisely what makes it appealing.

Sari Nusseibeh is a prophet who is never recognized in his own land. He has no standing, and he has no following. I am somewhat troubled by the fact that it is co-authored, and I am left with the questions about which beliefs are those of Anthony David.

Nonetheless, the book has given me insights into “the other,” and I come away with genuine admiration and affection for whichever author’s views are expressed. I wish that the two or three of us actually had constituencies and could sit down and by fiat declare peace.

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