Behind the Headlines; Lack of Consensus on Goals May Doom Peace Talks, Says Palestinian Thinker

Next week’s Middle East peace conference in Madrid is unlikely to resolve the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict because of the way it was structured, according to a leading Palestinian thinker who has been involved in the protracted negotiations to bring the peace talks about.

“The likelihood of its failure is very high,” Sari Nusseibeh told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview last week, before the United States and Soviet Union announced that the conference would open Oct. 30 in Madrid.

Nusseibeh, a Palestinian activist and philosophy professor who lives in East Jerusalem, was one of four Palestinians who met with Secretary of State James Baker in Washington on Oct. 11.

He believes the way the peace conference was structured is inherently flawed. Any attempt by Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs to come together without first committing to the principle of peace and security for Israel, and independence for the Palestinians, is likely to fail to result in any substantive change, he said.

“The approach being adopted by the Americans today is that you can’t get the two sides to agree in advance to anything, so the least you can do is bring them to sit at the table, and then, having gotten there, maybe things will work out,” Nusseibeh explained.

“But because there’s no agreement in principle on what you’re going to discuss, they’re going to find it very hard to make any compromises on any of the issues that are going to be brought up,” he said.

He said that Israel and the Palestinian delegates must agree in advance on the essence of what they’re trying to attain if there is to be any concrete progress.

ELEMENT OF GOOD WILL NEEDED

“If you bring two sides together who are more or less in agreement on the principle, trying to get them to discuss the details or the issues one by one is going to be much easier,” he said.

“There will be that element of good will, of confidence in the general framework, that will enable each side to give way in negotiating the different issues,” he said.

Without that confidence, “each and every issue is going to be magnified in the negotiating process to become a major issue over which there will be very little room to compromise.

“You want to create a settlement that will create good will in the future,” he said. “To do that, you have to make sure that the two sides are really prepared to accept the general structure, that they want to make that kind of deal.”

Good will between Israelis and Palestinians is the foundation for future co-existence in the separate, but intimately involved, states that Nusseibeh proposes in his new book, “No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” which he co-authored with Israeli political analyst Mark Heller.

Together they devised a blueprint for the existence of two independent, secure and economically viable states, an idea that is unthinkable for the vast majority of Israeli citizens.

Despite the fact that there is near-complete unanimity among the Israeli government, Israeli people and Diaspora Jews that Jerusalem must remain united as one city under Jewish rule, Nusseibeh believes the complex problem of achieving Middle East peace will not be resolved if Palestinians do not share some control of Jerusalem.

It would be “impossible, not only from the point of view of the Palestinians, but in the wider context, from the point of view of the Arabs and the Moslems,” to end the conflict without Israel sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem, he said in the interview.

He added that he thinks it is possible to arrive at a workable arrangement on Jerusalem.

A ‘REAL HUNGER’ FOR PEACE

With the mutual fear and suspicion that has settled over much of Jerusalem since the intifada began, it is difficult to imagine that decisions affecting the lives of Palestinians and Israelis could be made jointly, that cooperation could exist on such an intimate scale in a city so divided.

Nusseibeh admits he even had deep suspicions of collaborating with Heller when they first sat down to discuss their ideas. In a personal statement that prefaces the book, Nusseibeh recalls fearing Heller was trying to “play politics” or “gain advantage” by demanding that certain elements be incorporated into the blueprint.

But he overcame his doubts when he saw, during the course of their discussions, that Heller was indeed dedicated to a just resolution of the problems at hand.

It was his confidence in his adversary’s commitment to the goal that enabled them to reach a settlement, he said, a confidence which will also be needed by Palestinians and Israelis when they sit down to negotiate.

Despite the bitterness that could come out of the peace conference if it fails to produce any substantive change, Nusseibeh has faith that the two-state vision that he and his Jewish co-author proposed will someday become a reality.

Looking “beyond the positions of the leaders in Israel,” one finds “a real hunger” for peace on both sides, he said. He is optimistic, because he sees “an increasing readiness on the part of Israelis and in the Palestinian community to recognize the other side and make compromises.”

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