Interview with Sari Nusseibeh

The Voice , International Student NewsPaper of Leuven Jan-2009.


“A lot of the support for Hamas now comes exactly from people who don't believe in the possibility of peace anymore.”

In February Professor Sari Nusseibeh received an honorary doctorate of the K.U.Leuven for his peace initiatives concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the war in Gaza he refused to celebrate this. Almost four months later Nusseibeh made it to Leuven after all. He is known from his renunciation of violence, his willingness to co-operate with Israel, his vision on a two state solution with a demilitarized Palestine and his support to peace initiatives. From 1995 on he is also rector at the Arab Al Quds University in Jerusalem. The optimism of this politically active academic with a heavy past is highly remarkable. “I believe miracles can happen. Even more, it are people who make these miracles come about”.

VOICE - Your speech and vision are full of optimism. You say you believe “people can make miracles happen”. If you look at your past, what you have been through and what you have lived and seen, one could say it is quite remarkable you are still able to think this way.
NUSSEIBEH: Well it is a believe that has to do with my experience of what life is about. I have come out with the believe that we are in charge of our own lives, to a large extent. So whatever happens, happens because of us. If you take the view that I take and you believe you are still in charge, it gives you a reason to be alive, it gives you a reason to act and to think, to be creative, to try your best. Most history, for the better or the worse, has been made by individuals.

VOICE - If you believe persons are the motor of change, do you believe a peace process is possible with an Israeli government as it is now with Netanyahu and Liebermann?
NUSSEIBEH: It is possible but not everything is always possible in the same way. For instance two years ago it would have been very possible for Olmert in Annapolis to walk in the room with Abu Mazen and sign an agreement. And then come out and say to the world “we signed an agreement”. Nothing could have stopped them to do this, nothing. But both sides were worried and intimidated. This is why I said they need to have faith in themselves, in their own power. If Olmert at the time had faith in his own power and Abu Mazen too, they could have done it and put all the adversaries in a corner. They could have made history if they would have done it. They could have signed it. Of course today is different and in order to make peace, other things need to be done. And it is possible. I would suggest that the international community, led by Obama, would come out and put a peace deal on the table.

VOICE - You mention Obama. How did you look at his meeting with Netanyahu? That could hardly be called positive?
NUSSEIBEH: Look Netanyahu is not going to … (waits). Olmert was different. In the sense that it was clear that he was prepared to reach an agreement which was close to something Abu Mazen would have accepted. Netanyahu is a totally different kind of creature. He has a different attitude. So in my opinion you will have to bypass him. You can still make peace, but without him. He doesn't need to be there. Obama can come to the two leaders with an already made peace deal and he can tell them this is the deal the international community supports. It is a deal we don't want them to negotiate, not even to accept or sign but to bring it to the people and put it to the test, a democratic test. Both on the Israeli and Palestinian side. This is an offer the two sides would not be able to refuse. I call this a soft intervention of the international community.

VOICE - That might be possible within the West Bank but is it also possible in Gaza?
NUSSEIBEH: It has to be in the West Bank and Gaza, through an electoral process. Abu Mazen could pick it up and put it into his own political program and declare elections on the basis of it.

VOICE - Do you think a unity government is possible now?
NUSSEIBEH: It is possible.

VOICE - And sustainable?
NUSSEIBEH: It might be fine but it is not my first priority. I think they can discuss it and so on but not while forgetting everything else. And everything else is our future, the future of the Palestinian people and that will not be served by unity, it will be served by a peace agreement. And a peace agreement is not going to be arranged on the basis of a unity between the various fractions of the Palestinian side. There has to be disagreement among Palestinians.

VOICE - But within negotiations it would be…
NUSSEIBEH: Stronger? No, I believe not. You see, Hamas has the right to be against negotiations and even against the recognition of Israel. There must always be a community in Palestine like that. The question is: how important and significant is Hamas in the Palestinian community? I believe that if Abu Mazen and Fatah would have a peace deal in hand and then call for elections and go around in all Palestinian territories to explain this deal, they would win over a majority of the Palestinians… even some or a lot of those who right now support Hamas. This is because a lot of the support for Hamas now, is exactly because people don't believe anymore in the possibility of peace.

VOICE - Do the people still believe in Fatah? There is a lot of corruption going on…
NUSSEIBEH: Not at the moment. Apart from corruption, also no. If there would be elections today they would lose cause what do they represent? Nothing. The only way to get Fatah to win is to allow Fatah to succeed with a project with which Arafat crossed the river into Palestine, namely the project of creating a Palestinian state.

VOICE - Isn't that the assignment of the PLO?
NUSSEIBEH: Ok, but in general basically the forerunner was Fatah. And Arafat had this project. The thing is he did not create a state so the whole thing is collapsed. The only way for Fatah to revive is when they are able to offer a project of a Palestinian state. They can only do that when they are given a peace deal by Israel or the international community. But without this, they will not be able to survive.

VOICE - You talked about Arafat. Why did he keep on refusing in Camp David?
NUSSEIBEH: We don't know. You were not there and I was not there. We don't know what was on the table, there was never consensus. Camp David was conducted like Byzantine negotiations in back rooms and closed doors. You never knew what was happening. But Arafat's mistake at Camp David, which is also shared by Barak (Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister at the time) and Clinton, was that when they came out, feeling disappointed and angry, they spread this disappointment and anger like a virus across their communities, creating mistrust and frustration. They should have at least kept the frustration to themselves and then maybe come back later to continue the discussions.

VOICE - If you look at development initiatives in the Palestinian region, what do you think is still missing?
NUSSEIBEH: Education and health. A lot of money has gone to other places and I think there has been a lot of waste. People who know more about this than I do, like Amartya Sen, have looked at different parts of the world and have seen that the two most most important areas that stand out to create sustainable development are education and health. I would suggest to invest heavily in these sectors.