Interview with Sari Nusseibeh

Professor Sari Nusseibeh (born 1949), is President of the Jerusalem Al-Quds University and the PLO representative in the city. Nusseibeh, who read philosophy at Christ Church College in Oxford and received his PhD in medieval Islamic philosophy from Harvard, does not only publicly disagree with Israeli politics but also with the Palestinian leadership particularly Yassir Arafat. Together with the Israeli Ami Ayalon, he founded the grass root movement “The People’s Voice” in order to make both people agree to what their leadership obviously cannot: Peace. Sari Nusseibeh is married to Lucy Austin, daughter of J.L. Austin, and lives in Jerusalem.  

Q: You must be quite happy: After months of peaceful campaigning against Israel’s separation wall, Israel agreed to change the wall’s route, thus sparing the campus of the Al-Quds University to be cut into two.

A: As far as our campaign is concerned I have indeed a reason to be happy, or to be at least less unhappy. But once the city has decided where and when it will build its new ring road we will have to negotiate again.  

Q: Your achievement is entirely due to non-violent protest. Something you would recommend to Palestinian resistance as a whole?  

A: Definitely! I strongly believe in non violent protest, always have and always will. What we have achieved within the University should serve as a model deserves being studied by every Palestinian.  

Q: Aren’t there situations, like an extreme imbalance of power, where other than non-violent means are permitted?  

A: In a situation where one side holds absolute supremacy in military terms, the strengths of the other side rests, seemingly paradoxically, precisely in its military inferiority. Successful resistance to military oppression can only be non military. An example: In the past three years many Palestinians have opted for violence to fight the Israelis. They have employed guns, rocks and suicide bombers. But by doing so, they immediately lost their real strength: the support and the participation of the Palestinian masses. Because as soon as one limits one’s protest to military means alone, one automatically excludes everyone who has neither the ability nor the willingness to engage in military resistance. You loose actually loose your source of power.  

Q: If the majority is neither involved in violent nor in non-violent resistance, what then?  

A: In that case you have a disengaged majority that just waits until the storm is over. The strong point of our teachers, merchants and doctors simply is not military might. It is a different case with our enemy, the Israeli army. Israel’s strength derives indeed from its military power. Thus, the minute we enter this game of violence and counter violence we are bound to loose.  

Q: How come the Israelis seem always to win the moral battle and that the West is more inclined to identify with Jewish than Palestinian suffering?  

A: Because we give them every reason and excuse, like the suicide bombers. In addition there are other cultural differences: Just compare the pictures of a Jewish funeral with a Palestinian one. When a killed Israeli is buried you see images of mourning people crying solemnly and one automatically gets emotionally involved. But when a murdered Palestinian is buried you see TV pictures of people all dressed in black and white that are shouting and shooting. And even I think to myself that they are terrifying. I am not saying that emotions are generally bad. It just depends how you express them. We Palestinians are always trying to express a moral statement and we just don’t know how to do it. We have a proverb in Arabic that says that an expert in public relations is someone who manages to walk crying loudly in the front row of a funeral procession of someone he just has killed …..  

Q:…that is very close to the Hebrew definition of chutzpah….  

A: …laughs…and something we are definitely not good at! The Israelis are much better in restraining themselves and thus in upholding a rational image. As to the West and their support and ability to identify with us: in the 70s it was quite fashionable to support the Palestinian cause. This changed when our struggle became solely identified with terrorist acts. During the first Intifada this negative image was replaced by the much more the positive one of simple women and children who fought Israeli occupation in their villages and homes. The new Intifada destroyed this image once again and the result is a true PR disaster.  

Q: Israel has used military force at all times to control Palestinians, well before Palestinian violence, yet, without any lasting consequences.  

A: Israel could and can afford it. Despite its violent behaviour, Israel always managed to come across as a rational actor. Which also goes together with the fact that the stronger you are the less openly aggressive you have to act. We, the Arabs, on the other hand were always the weaker ones and compensated our military inferiority with an aggressive rhetoric. Those different ways of either expressing political and military power or covering up such impotence was transmitted to the international community. And since our voice was always louder and much more violent than Israel’s we came across as extremists and radicals. I always regretted this fact and thought that we should concentrate on our objective abilities and capacities instead of engaging in such exaggerated propaganda. As I said, we are simply not good in promoting our cause.  

Q: Do you get the impression that Israel is raising its voice recently?  

A: …smiles….Maybe the Israelis are catching our virus? However, we cannot overlook the very difficult background of the existence of the Israeli state in particular and the Jewish problem in general. Europe had and still has a Jewish problem. And this region, together with its people, has somehow been pulled into it and has been made to pay the price for a very European problem. And we have to think how to deal with Israel’s still existing sense of insecurity. It is in our own interest not to allow ourselves to fall victim to our frustration and anger in such a way that it becomes a source of even greater insecurity for Israel. After all, we are trying to make peace with Israel, to find a way to coexist, and it simply cannot be in our interest to reinforce Israel’s fear.  

Q: You once said that the Israelis know how to play the Palestinians and that they always know how to trigger the reaction they want.  

A: Oh, absolutely! We are living in a situation where the stronger one wants to create an excuse to beat the other weaker one. So he provokes him until the weaker one reaches a point where he hits back without thinking. The stronger one in turn uses this opportunity to smash him. In a sense the whole occupation business only works when provocations of the occupier trigger predictable reactions of the occupied. In my opinion we are making a fatal mistake if we continue to submit to those provocations. If we continue to accept that our actions are reduced to mere reactions to the Israel’s conduct, instead of following our own rationality, then we are not only deprived of our rationality and but truly occupied, not only physically but also mentally. Sharon, unfortunately, is a master in tactical manoeuvres and is playing with us in a very logical manner.  

Q: But can the Palestinians, particularly after what happened during and after the Oslo “peace process” be expected to act only in a level-headed manner? And who would there be to lead such a protest?  

A: It is of course very difficult. Shooting a bullet or throwing a stone is easier whereas self restraint is a constant struggle. And if we talk about the Palestinians as a whole: you are right, we do not have such a leader and we are greatly hindered by our classical perception and understanding of resistance which is and always was associated with violence. The only exception so far was the first Intifada. Then the predominant strategy was non- violent. This time people like me failed so far to organise peaceful protest. But I will continue to try to give an example of what can be achieved without resorting to violence.  

Q: According to recent newspaper reports US lawmakers are pushing the American President to adopt the Geneva Accords and your initiative with the Israeli Ami Ayalon [“The People’s voice”], which are both initiatives coming from the people. Have you been aware of the Geneva Accords?  

A: I knew that Yossi Beilin, together with some Palestinians, wanted to write a book about the basic principles of a future peace. That was right after the Taba talks had failed [January 2001]. But I had no idea that this academic exercise at one point turned into a political initiative. But I disagree with you that both initiatives are from the people. The only thing they have in common is that they are both unofficial. But the Geneva Accords once more propagates a top down approach whereas ours is a grass root initiative and thus much simpler, more basic. We are going from house to house and talk with people. It is also not an agreement but a request, a demand of our leadership, to negotiate on its basis. We are not telling them on what exactly they have to agree, we just formulated some principle that should be involved in any lasting agreement. Geneva, if you like, could be one possible scenario.  

Q: Do you trust the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to listen to this request?  

A: That is exactly the reason why one should turn to the people. The source of authority for any agreement can either be the respective governments or the people. And since so far we have not gotten anywhere in our pursuit of peace on the level of leadership, it becomes necessary to develop the alternative source of power, or authority: the people. If the political leaders should once more be unable to agree it would not be the end of the road as long as enough people come forward and say: but we want it!  

Q: Isn’t there a great sense of disempowerment by the Palestinians, a feeling of being rather an object than a subject of history and politics?  

A: Yes, until we started our initiative. If you go back in history and look at all the peace initiatives so far then you will find out that they were all attempts by political and intellectual leaders to find a formula for peace which at the end never materialised. We are now going the other way round and thus transmit a sense of power to the people. But it is true that in general the Palestinian people do feel powerless. So far the only power they ever experienced was the power of rocks and guns. They never had a chance to realise that they can exercise as much power if not more by peaceful means. Therefore we have to make them understand that they gain power by being peaceful.  

Q: Palestinian civil society suffered tremendously under Israeli occupation. Isn’t your reliance on Palestinian civil society very optimistic?  

A: I would rather use the term “faith” than “optimism”. And I do have faith in the ability of the Palestinian people to rise to the occasion. I also believe that this is of tremendous importance concerning our collective future. My understanding of democracy is that the individual need to have the feeling that he can influence and participate in shaping his future. And our future will depend on whether we continue to have war with Israel or make peace on the basis of two states. The way through which we will obtain our state will be decisive in shaping the character of our society. If we ever will have a democratic state then it must come about by peaceful means and from below. I much rather have a state through this route and thus get a state I want to live in then a state that comes from the top in which I have all the formal manifestation of democracy but that’s about it. Am I optimistic? No, I have faith.  

Q: You mentioned once the Schizophrenia Palestinians developed as a result of the discrepancy of Oslo’s promises and realities. Isn’t this also true for the Israelis? After all they were made believe that they are giving “Land for Peace”.  

A: I think that both sides truly believed that they will achieve peace, especially in the early day’s right after the Oslo agreement. And both soon had to discover that it was an illusion. Were both people tricked? I don’t know. But there certainly was a lack of seriousness of both leaderships. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians were open about the true costs of Oslo; they both did not place it on the top of their agenda and did not dedicated every single minute on implementing it, which they should have done. Instead they got lost in details and forgot the overall aim. The first thing which both sides should have done is recognise Oslo for what it was and then they should have made every effort to make it work. They didn’t and thus Oslo, which was a child of two parents, died of negligence. You cannot blame only the mother or only the father. Both were guilty.  

Q: But you still think Oslo was a good idea?  

A: It was certainly not a bad idea. I personally think it was a momentous change. Much delayed but great nevertheless. At that time I was involved in the Madrid talks and completely taken by surprise. I was very happy and I thought: this is it. Once you hook up the PLO with the Israeli government things will work out.  

Q: The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor said that in order to make peace you need to accept the equal worth of the one you want to make peace with. Do you think Israel has accepted the Palestinians as equals?  

A: With due respect to Charles Taylor: That question is irrelevant.  

Q: If there is no sense of equality how can one achieve a true peace?

A: You are right, but I still think it is irrelevant. I can accept you as equal and think that you have as much right as me, but still I might decide to get rid of you. In the case of this conflict: it has nothing to do with having equal rights or not. Israelis do not believe in my rights as a Palestinian. That is not the reason why they signed any documents. They did it out of pure and cold bloodied calculation. They believe that by making peace they can preserve themselves. And if we, as a result, are getting a state or an empire, they could not care less. The same is true for the Palestinians. We too do not suddenly believe that the Jews have a right to this land. Just like the Israelis, we have come to the conclusion that from a tactical point of view and regardless of whether we are equal or not this is the only way that we will get a state. Its pure self interest on both sides.  

Q: This does not make for a very nice peace. But this is obviously not the point?  

A: You are right. Once we have two states, there are two ways of dealing with each other, just like in any other relationship. We can either respect or accept each other or not. The former describes of course a much better relationship. Unfortunately this is nothing one can force.  

Q: A German saying states that many cooks spoil the broth. Would Israelis and Palestinians have been able to hammer out an agreement if they would have been left alone? See the Geneva Accords.  

A: I would like to agree, but I cannot. Even when you have only us two parties and no constant outside involvement there is no guarantee that this conflict would have been solved. In our case I think it is in fact very good that there is this flurry of peace activities: Geneva, Bush …  

Q: …George W. Bush? He seems to have all forgotten about his road map…  

A: Yes, even Bush. In my view he has said the unprecedented thing, namely that there must be a Palestinian state. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Bill Clinton went that far. However, the most important thing concerning any future peace settlement will be that Israelis and Palestinians realise what price they have to pay for it and decide whether they are willing to pay that price or not.