Hope for Mideast coexistence still flickers

Despite violence, figures on both sides hold on to dream

November 10, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - It's a 10-year-old story of hope and humanity, one that seemed just as improbable a decade ago as it does now. Sari Nusseibeh takes comfort in the retelling.

He says he saw this with his own eyes. In the early 1990s, he watched an armed Israeli soldier help the driver of a small Fiat unfurl a Palestinian flag, allowing it to flap in the wind as the car sped into the West Bank. A small gesture, but it had happened: A soldier from one side of the nearly intractable conflict in the Middle East helped a civilian from the other make a political statement.

"This was an act by an ordinary Israeli soldier who had been the enemy of Palestinian resistance," said Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor and now the pre-eminent voice of moderate Palestinians. "It was basically the message of peace and coexistence."

That tantalizing message has been all but drowned out by 13 months of fighting that has claimed more than 850 lives.

Political leaders, army commanders and scholars who used to talk of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis now favor the word "separation." Israelis and Palestinians have never seemed more divided.

But on both sides are thoughtful, influential figures who believe hope is not lost.

Among them is Nusseibeh, president of al-Quds University, who has returned from five years of self-imposed obscurity to offer an alternative to what he sees as the broken promises from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

His voice carries weight, both because of his title and his family's historic role.

He is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's newly appointed Palestine Liberation Organization representative in East Jerusalem and a member of an influential, even aristocratic Palestinian family firmly rooted in the Old City.

Uprising is exhausted

Nusseibeh says he believes the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, has nearly exhausted itself. Palestinian militants are reduced to carrying out suicide attacks on civilians, taking potshots at Israeli tanks and shouting tired rhetoric at funerals.

"Pretend the past year was a tragic mistake for both sides," Nusseibeh said. "We should look at the future, at what is possible, at what is necessary. We are losing ourselves in war. I don't think our actions for the future should be determined by the very ugly events of the past year."

Asa Kasher has similar ideas. An Israeli philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University and author of the ethics code for the Israeli army, he advocated creation of an independent Palestinian state and an Israeli withdrawal from most Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip beginning 20 years ago, when such talk was considered almost treasonous.

Interviewed separately, Nusseibeh and Kasher say that not only can Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side but that majorities on each side accept it as inevitable. But there is no question the past year of fighting has hardened positions among even the most moderate of voices.

Optimism vanishes

Gone is the optimism of the groundbreaking Madrid peace conference after the Persian Gulf war, which paved the way for the Oslo accords that granted Palestinians autonomy over many cities in the West Bank.

Those agreements prompted the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government that seemed a few short steps away from creating an independent Palestinian state.

Buoyed by the optimism after Madrid, Nusseibeh headed off to Washington to research the building of a state. He declined an invitation to join Arafat's new Palestinian Authority.

The penultimate step was supposed to be taken during the talks at Camp David last year. But Arafat, then-President Bill Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed to find a formula to resolve the political future of Jerusalem, the fate of Jewish settlements, and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Nusseibeh said Israel was wrong to continue to build settlements while negotiating to give up territory.

Kasher, too, saw settlements as a problem. But he is convinced that Palestinians would not be satisfied by gaining control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but are intent on destroying Israel.

"Even I don't trust Arafat anymore," said Kasher. "How can I trust you in the future if you shoot at me today? It will be very difficult to rebuild the level of trust we once had. I am amazed by the hatred."

The refugee issue

Kasher and Nusseibeh agree on one of the most contentious issues. Nusseibeh is pushing his leaders to give up its demands that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced when Israel became a state be allowed to return.

Nusseibeh's willingness to compromise on the refugee issue upset other Palestinian officials. He has revised his public statements, saying now that he believes refugees should be allowed to return but that compromise may be necessary for the sake of a peace agreement.

As the PLO representative in East Jerusalem, he succeeded Faisal Husseini, a revered figure who died this year at age 60.

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