It has taken me five years to read Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography since it was first published in 2007. I now recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Palestinian experience during the past 45 years. That experience is brought to light by this brilliant and sensitive witness who celebrates Palestinian national life on the one hand and is a harsh critic of it on the other.
Sari Nusseibeh is President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem and Professor of Philosophy. Called the “Philosopher of the Revolution” by his friend and mentor Faisal Husseini, in the 1990s Nusseibeh emerged as the point person in Jerusalem before the consular corps for Yassir Arafat. Yet, Nusseibeh spares little in criticizing Arafat himself, the PA and Hamas charging that Arafat failed his people at Camp David in 2000 when he had the chance to close a deal for a Palestinian state.
Nusseibeh was arrested a number of times and imprisoned not for any violent act, but rather for his consistently peaceful and moderate advocacy of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For this he was called by some Israeli security hawks as “the most dangerous Palestinian alive.”
Though a witness and/or a victim to daily degradation, confiscation of land, imprisonment, deportation, threats, and violence, Nusseibeh has argued for decades that Israelis and Palestinians are, in truth, not enemies at all, but natural strategic allies. Respectful of the State of Israel and of Judaism itself, when others among his PLO colleagues sought to deny the historic roots of Judaism in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh called those Jewish roots “existential and umbilical.”
None of this means, however, that Sari Nusseibeh is a “good Palestinian” by Israeli right-wing standards. He hates Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its military harshness, its security fence, and its ever-expanding settlements.
After the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada in 2001 when all seemed chaotic and going up in smoke, Dr. Nusseibeh was approached by former Israeli Shin Bet Chief, General Ami Ayalon, to craft a statement of principles. That statement would affirm the creation of two states for two peoples with the border running roughly along the 1967 lines, the capitals of each country based in Jerusalem and a just and reasonable solution to the refugee problem. It would be signed by 300,000 Israelis and 175,000 Palestinians.
Nusseibeh is a pragmatist and he knew that the Palestinians would have to give up their right of return if there were ever to be a Palestinian state. He even engaged in a very public yelling match on this point with Machmud Abbas in the presence of Arafat where Nusseibeh screamed in frustration, “Either you want an independent state or a policy aimed at returning all the refugees to Israel. You can’t have it both ways.”
In addressing the heart of this conflict, Nusseibeh wrote the following:
“Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?...The average Israeli [seeks] security and a Jewish state, and the average Palestinian [seeks] freedom from occupation…Israelis need to know that for them to keep their Jewish state requires a free Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians need to know that to get their state requires acknowledging the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. There can be no blanket right of return into Israel for the refugees…If both sides fail in this out of expediency or weakness, we’ll find ourselves one day in a hybrid state that fulfills neither the Israeli quest for a Jewish state, nor the national Palestinian quest for an Arab state.” (p. 446)
Once Upon A Country – A Palestinian Life is a great book because of the intelligence, passion and courage of its author. It is an essential read.