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Palestinian Official in Jerusalem Seeks to Break Impasse with Israel

November 19, 2001
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The top Palestinian official in Jerusalem has some ideas for ending the Israeli- Palestinian conflict — though they may not be acceptable to his own people.

Sari Nusseibeh’s suggestions come as some Israelis believe the Palestinians have tired of the intifada.

“They thought we would break down after a few months,” Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the Israel Defense Force’s deputy chief of staff, said in a radio interview over the weekend. “They are frustrated that we did not break, and they are now deliberating whether the intifada has exhausted itself, and whether it is time to change direction.”

Nusseibeh — recently appointed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs, replacing the late Faisal Husseini — is among those Palestinians who have been trying to suggest a new direction.

Nusseibeh earned a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy from Harvard University and serves as president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. He is the son of the late Anwar Nusseibeh, who served as minister of defense in Jordan in the early 1960s.

Like his father, Sari Nusseibeh often has expressed unorthodox views on resolving the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the 1980s, he served time in Israeli jails for engaging in alleged subversive activities.

He also has been physically attacked in the past by fellow Palestinians for expressing moderate views.

During the past few weeks, Nusseibeh raised Palestinian ire with comments he made in a series of public appearances, as well as with statements that appeared in the Arabic- and Hebrew-language press.

He made clear that in exchange for a peace deal with Israel the Palestinians would have to give up the “right of return” for refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

Such a demand is a “deal breaker” that Israel would never accept, for fear of undermining the Jewish identity of the state, Nusseibeh said. Israelis of all political stripes consider the demand that some 4 million to 5 million Arab refugees and their descendants be allowed into Israel as a veiled call for the elimination of the Jewish state.

In return, Nusseibeh said, Israelis must understand that the Palestinians demand all the land Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War. This means that Israel would have to give up all its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and turn over all of eastern Jerusalem.

Nusseibeh’s comments about the refugees might have aroused less outrage among Palestinians just a year and a half ago.

It was only after the collapse of peace talks last year that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat revived the demand that the right of return be part of a final settlement with Israel.

Before that, it was implicitly understood under the Oslo accords that Palestinians would not demand to return to Israel once they had their own state.

After more than a year of violence, however, Palestinians are not inclined to hear that they too must make concessions for peace.

Just the same, Nusseibeh is optimistic that his people ultimately will listen to his ideas.

“Although there is a lot of criticism of these views on the Palestinian side, this does not indicate that these views could not be acceptable” to the Palestinian people, Nusseibeh told JTA in an interview over the weekend.

The Palestinians are unhappy with the realities of the current situation, he explained. “They are looking for alternatives.”

Nusseibeh is confident that public opinion ultimately will tend his way “if people are made to discuss the problem realistically, and feel that they are going to participate in the decision.”

“The stalemate in the conflict is a result of the fact that there is no hope on either side,” Nusseibeh told JTA. “But if the leadership on both sides can take this leap forward, then we can break the stalemate.”

Despite such optimism, Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza last week to protest Nusseibeh’s views. Others signed a petition challenging his authority to cede the right of return.

Jibril Rajoub, head of Palestinian security in the West Bank — and a moderate in the eyes of some Israelis — said it was the timing of Nusseibeh’s comments “which is problematic, not their substance.”

But Ahmad Abdul Rahman, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said Nusseibeh had expressed a “personal opinion” and not the official stance of the Palestinian Authority.

“The official position remains that we are committed to the right of Palestinian refugees to return,” Rahman said.

Meron Benvenisti, a longtime observer of the Palestinian scene, does not believe the Palestinians will rally around Nusseibeh’s ideas.

“His public is not willing to hear a rational argument,” Benvenisti wrote in Ha’aretz.

But Nusseibeh is convinced that the Palestinians have no choice but to revise their attitude.

“The Arab world and the Palestinian leadership have to take another look at what’s possible and what needs to be done and how best to create a future for those refugees,” he said. “Rather than allow people to continue dreaming an unattainable dream, replace it with a dream that can” come to life.

Indeed, there are signs that Nusseibeh is not alone in seeking a new approach to ending the conflict.

Mohammed Dahlan, the head of Palestinian security in Gaza, recently condemned what he said was the lack of any real Palestinian strategy to get out of the present stalemate with Israel.

In addition, Israeli politicians sometimes say that, in private conversations, leading Palestinians express exasperation and consternation with Arafat, arguing that he has no vision of where to lead the intifada and is only reacting as events unfold.

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