Why arrest a moderate in Israel?

Anthony Lewis

February 05, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

SHORTLY BEFORE midnight last Tuesday, Israeli police took Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian moderate, from his home in a Jerusalem suburb. He was told that he was being put in "administrative detention" -- prison -- for six months.

In the middle of a war, with Scud missiles threatening the lives of civilians in Israel, one more detention without trial may seem unimportant.

But this one mattered. It sent an ominous signal to those, in Washington and elsewhere, who have been talking about the hope of new peace and security arrangements for the Middle pTC East after the war.

Nusseibeh is a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, 41, a graduate of Oxford. American and other diplomats have dealt with him for years, finding him a voice of reason amid so much hatred and violence.

The afternoon before his arrest, members of the Israeli Peace Now movement went to Nusseibeh's home to discuss peace ideas with him.

I spoke with one of the Peace Now group, Mordechai Bar-On, by telephone.

"The idea was to have an exchange of letters about how we see the future," Bar-On said. "It was an exploratory meeting.

"Sari said he was ready to condemn the killing of civilians anywhere, whether in Tel Aviv or Baghdad.

He wanted to revive the Palestine National Council position in favor of recognizing Israel, a two-state solution, denouncing terror."

When Nusseibeh was arrested that night, a government statement said he had been detained "for subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence."

There was no formal charge or opportunity to defend, but officials told reporters that Nusseibeh had passed on information about where Scud missiles had landed.

Israelis and others who know Nusseibeh called the government claim incredible as a matter of both his character and common sense.

They pointed out that he had been confined to his home by the curfew, with no way of knowing where missiles landed except from radio or television, and no way of communicating except by telephone, which he knew must be tapped.

Moreover, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Nusseibeh was critical, saying he was opposed to that occupation as he was to Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

He also criticized the war when it started, saying that diplomacy should have been given more time to work and that he was "against all forms of violence and war."

Why, then, was Nusseibeh arrested?

The likely answer is straightforward. Israel's right-wing government does not want to negotiate with Palestinians because it does not want even to talk about withdrawing from the occupied territories.

The best way to prevent negotiation is to decapitate the moderate leadership.

Another West Bank leader, Saeb Erakat, said:

"This is a message to us Palestinian moderates. The message is you can forget about negotiations after the war because we are going to make sure there is no one to talk to."

The authorities asked a judge to confirm the six-month detention order. Usually that is an utterly routine request.

But this time the judge, Vardi Zeiler, looked at a summary of the security service's secret material and then said he would confirm only a three-month detention.

The episode shows that judges try to maintain Israel's commitment to justice, although their role is very limited under security legislation.

But the political message of Sari Nusseibeh's detention remains.

Indeed, it was underlined when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir pushed through his Cabinet a move to bring into the government the extreme right-wing Moledet Party, which favors the expulsion of all Palestinians from the occupied territories.

At a time when Israel is exercising wise restraint over the missile attacks, its right-wing leaders must reckon that a U.S. government preoccupied by war will not notice.

But President Bush should understand that his ideas on a new world order will not come easily to the Middle East, where so many prefer the old order.

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