Remorse sows seeds of peace

January 13, 2002|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARYAHU, Israel - Every Western motorist is familiar with a cardinal rule of behavior if involved in an accident: Never admit liability. Westerners would be shocked to learn that Arab culture operates on a different paradigm.

Palestinian leader Sari Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy with a doctorate from Harvard, president of Jerusalem's Al-Quds University and confidant of Yasser Arafat, recently recounted that his car grazed a woman pedestrian as he was driving in a hurry.

He got out of his car, ascertained that she seemed unhurt and handed her his card, telling her to call if she discovered some injury.

Mr. Nusseibeh heard nothing from the woman and forgot about the incident. Several weeks later, Mr. Nusseibeh's father asked him if, perhaps, he had hit somebody with his car. The father had been contacted and reproached about Mr. Nusseibeh's conduct by people from the woman's village.

What had Mr. Nusseibeh done wrong? How could he possibly be faulted? To Western eyes, he had acted the perfect gentleman.

But Mr. Nusseibeh's father understood the complaint against his 53-year-old son. Having wronged the woman, even unintentionally, it was incumbent upon Mr. Nusseibeh to seek her out, to verbalize his sympathy for her and, by doing so, show that he accepted responsibility. As it was, the family felt a mounting sense of having been wronged and suspected that Mr. Nusseibeh, from a well-known aristocratic family, didn't want to demean himself by coming to her simple village.

The woman indeed was not injured, but the accident spawned hurt feelings, which escalated.

Mr. Nusseibeh uses his experience as a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. He believes that, for Palestinians, it is essential for Israel to make public acknowledgment to the Palestinians that the birthing process of Israeli statehood caused them injury and suffering, even if unintentionally. Until Israel makes this psychosocial leap, Palestinian anger and resentment will fester.

Such an opportunity nearly arose when Israeli President Moshe Katsav recently expressed readiness to address the Palestinian parliament in the West Bank city of Ramallah to express regret over the loss of lives on both sides and request a year-long cease-fire. Mr. Arafat reportedly was amenable, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nixed the plan.

Mr. Katsav, whose power as president is largely ceremonial, had no choice but to yield. Mr. Nusseibeh termed Mr. Katsav's proposed address as a gesture of "genius" that would have gone "right to Palestinian hearts."

Mr. Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority representative for Jerusalem affairs and a recent appointee to the Palestinian negotiating team, is a controversial figure. Viewed by many Palestinians as much too moderate, he is dismissed as "the pretty face of terrorism" by Israeli Public Security Minister Uzi Landau.

Israelis who gathered in a private home in a tony Tel Aviv suburb Jan. 5 to hear Mr. Nusseibeh relate his metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis were astounded at his acknowledgement of responsibility and liability for the accident because his attitude was in direct opposition to their own cultural norms of behavior.

Mr. Nusseibeh's audience was extraordinary for a Palestinian leader at a time of bloody confrontations, epithets, ultimatums and deaths between the two warring people. Nearly 90 Israeli professors, ex-army generals, doctors, lawyers and other professionals came together to hear Mr. Nusseibeh, who had accepted an invitation to speak at the home of a human rights activist. Both proffering the invitation and accepting it were leaps of faith in themselves.

Unlike the thorough security searches when entering nearly every auditorium, store or public place in Israel, nobody checked Mr. Nusseibeh or his four companions. It was difficult to believe that only a few miles away Palestinians and Israelis might be aiming deadly weapons at each other.

In 1997, when a deranged Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli girls in northern Israel, King Hussein paid condolence calls upon the modest homes of each of their families. The Israelis who heard Mr. Nusseibeh understood that the significance of Hussein's stunning humility bore more than a purely personal resonance.

Mr. Nusseibeh's talk was more an academic conference than a meeting between enemies. He eloquently presented his vision for peace, which includes dropping as unrealistic the longstanding Arab demand for the right of Palestinians to return to their former homes in Israel, although insisting on compensation.

There was a cordial exchange of questions and answers, even interludes of laughter.

Mr. Nusseibeh is less pessimistic about peace than he was a few months ago.

"There is no reason to feel that we have to reach 100 percent agreement; if we reach 10, 20, 30 percent, we can congratulate ourselves."

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and free-lance writer who divides her time between New York and Israel, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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