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A Way Past Middle East Deadlock

Interviewee: Sari Nusseibeh, President, Al-Quds University, Jerusalem
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 29, 2010

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With the renewal of settlement building in Israel's West Bank and Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," negotiations between the two sides seem to be at a stalemate. Al Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, a longtime proponent of a two-state solution, says he recommended to President Barack Obama that the United States introduce a "vision" for a deal that would be put to a plebiscite vote for Israelis and an electoral vote for Palestinians. "So if the Israelis are asking for a two-state solution on such-and-such basis, they could say, 'Yes, if the Palestinians say yes,' and likewise in the other direction." He believes the populations on both sides would support a two-state plan presented by the United States, although he sees such a move--or any progress at all--as unlikely in the current climate. However, he adds, if there is no forward movement, Palestinians should press to be absorbed into Israel, where even if they do not have the right to vote, they would otherwise have full civil rights "so they could actually live freely, travel freely, work freely, have the rights that humans beings are entitled to have under any kind of system of democracy government."

You co-authored a book in 1991 with Israeli Mark A. Heller, calling for a two-state solution when it was not fashionable. But more recently you've been less enthusiastic, and were quoted in Le Figaro as saying a two-state solution was no longer possible.

I believe a two-state solution, if it's realizable, is probably the best kind of option. It would involve compromises from both sides. The alternative is not really doable through negotiations. For example, if you think about a one-state solution, it's not going to happen through negotiations because the majority of Israelis would probably be against it. And if you think of any other scenarios, again, you'll find that most people will probably be against it. So we have a situation where if we are left without a two-state solution, then we're going to be in for a long haul. I don't want to overdramatize it, but it's not going to be beautiful, or a good situation for either side.

If a vision for a two-state solution is put on the table, and if Abbas seeks to be reelected with his Fatah party--whether in Gaza or the West Bank--I have reason to believe that he would get the majority behind him both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

In that Figaro interview, you said you'd sent a letter to the Obama administration suggesting they essentially drop the negotiations that were going on. Can you elaborate?

That was right at the beginning of Obama's term, when [former] senator George Mitchell was about to begin his work as a special Middle East negotiator. I wrote a letter saying that if he were to pursue the matter in the old classical way of trying to go at it step by step that he will likely be faced with more obstacles [and] things will not work the way he wants them to. I think very soon after I sent that letter, he faced the first obstacle, which was settlements. And that has continued until today.

I hope that the negotiations now being conducted by the American administration have more to them than meets the eye, because if one just looks at what's happening, then one can't conclude that very much, in fact, seems to be happening. Now I'm not discounting the possibility that there may be something going on behind the scenes.

What I suggested at the very beginning was for Obama to call the leaders of the two sides together and put in front of them a vision of a two-state solution based on negotiations that have taken place in the past. [It should include] some kind of American bridging of the gaps and then asking the two leaders not necessarily to negotiate on this vision, nor to accept or reject this vision, but to take this vision respectively to the Israeli and Palestinian populations and put it to a test: Basically ask the two sides to vote for that vision or against it. And I placed a number of conditions. I said, "You know this has to be done on the Palestinian side through an electoral process, rather than through a plebiscite; on the Israel side through a plebiscite. The results should come out on the same day and should be done conditionally." In other words, the answer should be, "Yes, if the other side says yes." So if the Israelis are asking for a two-state solution on such-and-such basis, they could say, "Yes, if the Palestinians say yes," and likewise in the other direction.

Unfortunately, this hasn't happened. Since then, in fact, I'm not sure if much has been happening. Each day things are getting worse.

Can the Palestinian Authority make an agreement with Israel, given that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is opposed to making a deal with Israel?

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This is why I suggested that on the Palestinian side we go through an "electoral process," rather than a plebiscite. If a vision for a two-state solution is put on the table, and if President Mahmoud Abbas seeks to be reelected together with his Fatah party, I have reason to believe that he would probably be reelected, that he would get the majority behind him both in Gaza and in the West Bank. We are talking about populations, rather than about parties. But populations that earlier had voted for Hamas and voted Fatah out of office [would now accept the two-state deal].

The Israeli government has many people in its cabinet who are opposed to any compromises with the Palestinians. What is your sense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's position?

There are two levels. There is the level of the government and there is the level of the people. If there is no observable or ostensible movement forward, people in government are likely to keep steering away from the direction of peace because there is no tangible incentive for them to go in that direction. For example, if even Netanyahu were to stand up and call upon his colleagues in the cabinet to go in the direction of peace and make compromises, he would probably not find the kind of the support needed, so long as the situation is as it is. On the other hand, the Israeli people are a mirror image of the Palestinians. In other words, it is true that they voted for a government that is more right wing than it has ever been in Israel, but the reasons for them having voting this way have to do with various things, including the frustration of not achieving peace with the Palestinians. Therefore, if a tangible chance for peace were to be offered, I think the people who voted for the right wing government will, in fact, vote for peace. In that kind of context, I think Netanyahu as a prime minister would be quite happy to take the steps necessary to go ahead and support the peace process. But I'm not sure as things stand if he is prepared or likely to take that kind of step, by himself.

Did President Abbas make a mistake by not accepting Israel as Jewish State? Obviously Israel was set up by the UN under Resolution 181 as a "Jewish state" in 1948, and of course there are many Palestinians who live in Israel, but just to say, "Israel is a Jewish state," what's the problem?

Any agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis will have to take [Arab] Palestinians into account. They live in Israel and are Israeli citizens. They have cause to [be concerned] about defining the state as "Jewish" because what, then, would it mean to them?

First of all, not many people are readers of history, so not many people know what happened. Of course, you're quite right. When the United Nations took a vote back in 1948 to create the state of Israel, the partition was made as a state for the Jews and a state for the Arabs. What makes people upset is that right at the beginning of this particular peace process--which is the only peace process we have in our history between the Palestinians and the Israelis--the only thing that was actually requested, demanded, required by the Israelis was to have the Palestinian side recognize Israel. As you may know, it took a long time for the PLO and the Palestinians and the Arabs to get on board with the recognition of Israel and, therefore, the two-state solution. That was the foundation of a peace process which began back in Madrid in 1991 and continued into the secret bilateral talks in Oslo.

Now, suddenly, the Israel side is upping the ante, so to speak, and saying, "No, it's not enough. What I want you to do is recognize me as such and such." This makes the Palestinians and Arabs feel that it will never end. They started asking for one thing, now they're asking for more things.

And there is another issue: You have within Israel, as you rightly pointed out, a large number of Arabs, or Palestinian Arabs. Any agreement entered into between the Palestinians and the Israelis will have to take those Palestinians into account. They live in Israel and are Israeli citizens. They have cause to fear and to have concern about defining the state--which they are very much a part of--as "Jewish" because what, then, would it mean to them?

But you said in another interview that Israel should just absorb the Palestinians and they'll be second-class citizens. Was that a joke or were you serious?

As I said from the beginning, the best of all solutions is a two-state solution. And I very much hope and pray that such a solution will come about and as quickly as possible. Because that is the type of solution that will put everyone's minds and bodies at rest and would bring stability to the region.

But let us assume, for a minute, that a two-state solution is not going to be brought about. The next question to ask ourselves is, "Well then, what is going to happen?" What will happen, say, in the context of the next few years, if a two-state solution is not reached? Extrapolating from the present situation, the only thing you can forecast happening is very much a kind of South Africa apartheid, where you have enclaves of Palestinians living under the hegemony--military and otherwise--of Israel; three or four of such enclaves in the West Bank and in Gaza. This kind of situation may seem from Israel's point of view to be a good interim or long-term solution, but it doesn't at all satisfy anything from the Palestinian point of view.

What I'm suggesting is that in this kind of situation--which also may mean that in the long run we may not be able to reach a two-state solution--it is probably better for Palestinians and for the international community to challenge Israel. In that kind of context, instead of putting Palestinians in enclaves and providing them with limited autonomy within those enclaves, to provide them with proper civil rights. If you're not going to provide them with political rights, than at least provide them with proper civil rights--and not just within enclaves but in the country as whole, so they could actually live freely, travel freely, work freely, have the rights that humans beings are entitled to have under any kind of system of democracy government. They would not have the right to hold office or to vote.

I'm trying to make it clearer for people about what will happen if we do not have a two-state solution, because many people basically are saying, "If not two states than one state." But one democratic state is not going to come about, so what we're going to end up with is a kind of situation with enclaves. So perhaps if the American administration, or the international community, doesn't have any other way of convincing Israel to give us two states, one possible way is to tell Israel, "Well, you have all these people under your rule, at least give them full civil rights until you decide to split up the country between the two people."

It was reported that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wants to just declare a Palestinian state. Is that possible?

Well the Palestinians have been discussing this over a long period of time. They don't have a way of reaching a proper two-state solution so they might, I suppose, go for a virtual solution. I don't think it would do very much. The best possible solution we could have is a negotiated solution that both parties agree to, in order to make sure such a solution will be stable and long-lasting.

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