Interview with Sari Nusseibeh

Ways out of the Deadlock

The Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh has been engaged for many years in different Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. In this interview with Igal Avidan he talks about the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian accord

photo: AP
Against political isolation: "I'm against Hamas, but I think the whole attitude towards Hamas has been wrong from the beginning," says Sari Nusseibeh

​​ After an almost two-year break, Israelis and Palestinians resumed direct peace talks on 2 September 2010. But their negotiations are on the verge of collapsing if Israel doesn't prolong its ten-month construction stop in Jewish settlements, which ran out on 26 September. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas wants to wait to decide whether the PLO will continue direct talks with Israel until a decision is made by the Arab League this week (starting 4 October).

Israeli Navy captured last week the boat "Irene" carrying mostly Jewish and five Israeli passengers on their way to Gaza. They had intended to deliver "symbolic" relief goods for a hospital in the hermetically sealed Gaza Strip. How do you regard this action?

Sari Nusseibeh: It's a very good sign that Israelis and Jews on the ship are demonstrating their support for the people in Gaza. It's a courageous act by peace supporters in Israel. The more these kinds of initiatives happen the better, because they build bridges between peace supporters on both sides of the national divide. Maybe that's one important way for us to push the leadership on both sides to make peace.

Is the Gaza blockade the right way to deal with the Hamas rule there?

Nusseibeh: No, I'm against Hamas, but I think the whole attitude towards Hamas has been wrong from the beginning – the way the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, the Americans and the international community have closed them off, not recognising Hamas's victory in the elections. I think this has all worked to the disadvantage of the peace process. The Hamas government should have been recognised and the PA shouldn't even have tried to be partners in the government, which they did to the detriment of the PA and the Fatah.

photo: AP
A Palestinian woman watches a Jewish settler carry out the belongings of a Palestinian family from a house in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Jewish activists have been protesting against the evacuation of Palestinian families

​​ The Israeli Supreme Court has rejected the Palestinian claims to a large property in Sheik Jarrah in East Jerusalem. This decision allows Jewish settlers to move into a dozen homes in which Palestinians now reside. Jewish activists have been protesting against the evacuation of three Palestinian families. You grew up in Sheik Jarrah, in then divided Jerusalem.

Nusseibeh: That's just around the corner from my parents' house. I'm not sure that the implications of this important case are fully understood. A lot of Israelis have been demonstrating recently in support of the Palestinian families in that area. But as far as I know, that area was bought by Jews and just after the war in 1948–49 it was handed over by the Jordanian custodian of enemy property to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) to build homes for Palestinian refugees who had come over from West Jerusalem.

If the Palestinians from that property have to be evicted because it's Jewish property, they should be housed back in their old properties in West Jerusalem. Because the Israeli left doesn't want that to happen, they are demonstrating to keep them in Sheikh Jarrah, which is a good compromise.

The restart of construction work in the settlements has increased the inner-Palestinian pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas. He himself has called for a complete stop to building activity in the Jewish settlements, but he didn't make it a condition to continue negotiations with Israel. Do you support his decision to cede the decision to the Arab League?

Nusseibeh: The settlement activity is making it more and more difficult to reach a two-state-solution. George Mitchell was right in pointing at the settlements as the major danger. But I wouldn't necessarily have put the settlement issue right up front because, looking at the history of the negotiations, it would be like hoping for the impossible: that the Israelis would stop building completely in order to start negotiating.

Settlement construction site in the West Bank (photo: dpa)
Obstacle to peace: "The settlement activity is making it more and more difficult to reach a two-state-solution," says Sari Nusseibeh

​​ What should the thousands of Palestinians do who are building their houses in the Jewish settlements?

Nusseibeh: If a 'smart' politician wants the Palestinians to stop building in settlements, then he should provide an alternative, because at the end of the day Palestinians who work in settlements are human beings and they need to live.

Ironically, a two-state-solution seems increasingly less likely despite the fact that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians supports an independent Palestinian state. The reasons you have named for this are the Jewish settlements and the separating barrier, which cuts the West Bank off from East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. What do you suggest in this situation?

Nusseibeh: In case the peace talks fail, I propose as an interim solution extending full civil rights to all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but not political rights. This means the freedom to move, to work, so they could have access to all services, such as medical care and social insurance. I'm not suggesting that we'd be given the right to vote in the Israeli Parliament or that we become co-participants in the government. But it might be a good way to pacify the situation: it would make the two populations maybe come to accept each other more and perhaps then they can be better prepared for a two-state-solution, if they want.

You would like to expand the East Jerusalem model, but has that been such a success?

Nusseibeh: No, but it's much better than the Gaza model.

The EU is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority. How can Brussels push the peace process forward?

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (photo: dpa)
In case the peace talks fail, Sari Nusseibeh proposes as an interim solution extending full civil rights to all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Nusseibeh "This means the freedom to move, to work, so Palestinians could have access to all services, such as medical care and social insurance"

​​ Nusseibeh: If the Europeans are financing the Palestinian Authority in order to bring about a Palestinian state, then they should demand a timetable for setting up this state and for negotiations to end. But if they are just financing us with a view to clearing their conscience, then maybe they should reconsider how to finance us. Maybe they should focus on Palestinians in Israel or finance the health and education sectors rather than infrastructure, because Israel should finance the basic infrastructure.

One of the stumbling blocks to a final agreement is the question of the Palestinian refugees. In the peace initiative that you launched in 2003 together with the former Israeli head of intelligence, Ami Ayalon, you excluded the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Still, some 250,000 Israelis and 160,000 Palestinians signed your accord model. How do you explain this popular support?

Nusseibeh: One of the principles of the two-state-solution is that the Palestinians drop their insistence on their right of return to Israel. That should be replaced by compensations or the return to a Palestinian state, or by other solutions. This renouncement should be part of a package deal. I understand what the Israeli needs are and I'm prepared to address them, but I want in return that Israel addresses my needs.

Interview: Igal Avidan

© 2010

Sari Nusseibeh, born in 1949 in Damascus, Syria, is a professor of philosophy and president of the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Until December 2002 he was the representative of the Palestinian National Authority in Jerusalem.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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