'Once Upon a Country': An Interview With Sari Nusseibeh

By Mohanan Hamed and Adham Manasreh,, Bonn, Germany, June 15, 2008

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life. By Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David. 583 pages. Picador. $16.00.

Sari Nusseibeh has been president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, Israel, since 1995 and also teaches philosophy there. Nusseibeh has long been committed to peace in the Middle East. His book Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life has recently been published in paperback by Picador.


Israel is currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of its independence. How do you respond to that as a Palestinian?

I don't think it makes a lot of difference how many years Israel has existed. It's quite normal to celebrate anniversaries, and that applies to Israel too. On the other hand, the Nakba is for us the other side of what Israel celebrates as its independence. This contradiction will remain until we have reached a settlement and we have new relations between the two sides.

Do you think that the right of return, as it has been traditionally understood, still applies 60 years since the conflict began?

I personally think that the return of refugees is a dream which cannot be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. In the first place it cannot be fulfilled in the sense that a refugee will be able to go back to the house from which his parents or grandparents were driven. Most of those houses have been destroyed or have been replaced by multistory buildings. But there is a legal right which means we should be able to claim damages, for example, or some other kind of compensation for exile.

In my view, the solution also involves the fact that there will be two states, and that we will be able to compensate the refugees both materially and morally by enabling them to take up a new life, instead of their clinging to something which is not practically possible—a return in the traditional sense. If the refugee problem is to be solved, it will require the Israelis to sacrifice something: the whole of East Jerusalem, especially the old city and the holy area, would be the price for giving up the right of return. I think that Palestinian refugees would be prepared to make such a sacrifice.

You have always rejected the militarization of the second Intifada. How can you convince Palestinian citizens of the sense of nonviolent resistance? Are there examples where nonviolence has been successful?

Yes, there are many examples in history showing how political aims have been reached by peaceful means. I don't mean to say that peaceful means are always the only means which make sense. I don't know if that's true. But what I do know is that the use of violence has never helped us in Palestine, but has, on the contrary, always damaged us.

When the last Intifada broke out for example—and I call it that only reluctantly, because it was never an uprising of the people—the suicide bombings gave Israel the justification for building the dividing wall, which has not only split villages but will also make future negotiations more difficult. As a result of this Intifada we are now in a worse position than we were at the time of Camp David.

Now we are asking for a return to the situation of 2000, instead of a return to the borders of 1967, and we want the Americans to put pressure on Israel to dismantle just a few out of the hundreds of checkpoints. Our negotiating position is pitiable, and I believe that we've brought ourselves into this regrettable situation.

It's well known that a majority of Israelis as well as a majority of Palestinians support a peaceful solution on the basis of two states. What are the hurdles which this solution has to overcome?

There is no consensus on the two sides as to how a two-state solution should look. Another factor is in the conflict between what the political leadership wants and the dynamics of the real-time developments. History does not wait for the decisions and actions of politicians. In addition, there is not an adequately serious interest on either side—in fact, perhaps a solution is not even on their agenda, and they don't spend enough time in trying to come to a serious solution.

Is there any chance that President Bush's proposals to establish a Palestinian state will be implemented this year, in spite of the weakness of both Abbas and Olmert?

Logically, it ought to be possible, but I scarcely expect it myself. If Abbas and Olmert were to agree on the form of the two states—and I'm sure they could sign such an agreement anytime—they would come before the Palestinian or the Israeli people and explain to them that this agreement is to the benefit of both sides. Then both sides could hold new elections.

Abbas would declare the agreement to be the political program of Fatah, and Olmert too would run his election campaign on the basis of the agreement. If that were to happen, both of them would be re-elected and would then be able to implement the agreement.

So I don't see any Iron Curtain standing in the way of a solution. And I also don't believe that Olmert and Abbas couldn't find such an agreement, in spite of their weakness. A politician is a political giant or a pygmy on the basis of what he actually does. If Olmert and Abbas were to achieve something like that, historically they would be political giants within 24 hours. And can we expect that? I'm afraid both of them are too hesitant, and Olmert especially is in a worse situation than he was before. And that's why this solution may be lost forever.

What mistakes have the Palestinian and Arab leaders made during the last 60 years? Has the Palestinian leadership really let chances for peace slip by, as is always claimed?

Certainly it has. For example, when the British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine in 1917, our grandfathers demonstrated and protested. The community leaders should rather have hired a plane and flown to London to speak to the foreign minister. They should have discussed things and created a Palestinian diplomacy. If they'd done that, they would have been in a position to control things much better.

In the thirties there was a blueprint for the establishment of a state on the whole of Palestine in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews would each control a third. The Arabs would have had two-thirds. The Arabs rejected this too. If they'd accepted it, they would now be in a better position. And so on. Every time, their situation has got even worse as a result of the innumerable mistakes of their leadership. It's true that half the problem stems from the occupation, but the other half is historically the responsibility of our leadership.

If politicians can't bring about peace, can we put our hopes in the civil society in Israel and Palestine?

I think that both sides are not currently in a position to do that. Unfortunately, we don't have a situation in which the public can take the initiative, because both sides don't know where they're going. I think, though, that a new phase will start in several months or years, in which the street will be able to put pressure on both sides.

In the West there's a debate as to how one should deal with the Islamic movements. Should the West speak to them and try to integrate them politically?

I think that the Islamic movements are an integral element of the political and cultural landscape of the Muslim world. Why should we call for a dialogue with Judaism and at the same time reject a dialogue with the Islamic movements? After all, dialogue doesn't mean taking over the opinions of the other side.

There are many different initiatives to strengthen the dialogue between cultures and religions, but they have not led to the desired results. Where do you see the weak points of such dialogue?

Whenever we talk about such a dialogue, we only ever mean the dialogue between the monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and we never speak about the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, where there aren't any very serious problems. On the contrary: Shintoism was originally the dominant religion in Japan, and when Buddhism came from China, the Japanese didn't give up their Shintoism, but became Buddhists as well and united the two religions.

The problems seem to emerge primarily between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because they are so similar and have the same origin. Buddhism and Shintoism could co-exist precisely because they are so different.

The solution lies above all in the abandonment of all religious fanaticism, and in our orienting ourselves on human values, and not on religious values, because everyone can agree on the former. And if a religious principle is in conflict with a human principle, then we have to uphold the latter. That's the only way we will come to mutual acceptance.

This article from was translated from German by Michael Lawton and distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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