Changing the mind for an Israeli-Palestinian peace

Oct 11, 2010
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The peace talks look doomed to fail, with Israel reluctant to extend the construction freeze in the settlements and the Arabs backing Palestinian decision to walk out of negotiations if this is the case. Is peace such an elusive ideal between the two sides? Not so perhaps, if there is a radical mindset shift, says Palestinian academic Dr Sari Nusseibeh.

For a moment there was a flicker of hope.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might do a barter with the (even) more right-wing of his government.

He would push forward a proposal that requires all new immigrants to take an oath pledging loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. In exchange, his government might approve an extension on the freeze on construction in the Jews-only Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

The extension was just about all that's keeping the Palestinians in the first direct peace negotiations between the two sides in ten years. No freeze, no talks.

The peace negotiations on their own were already tenuous enough, without the Palestinian threat to walk. With little popular support for the talks behind him, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had to be coerced by the US into entering these talks, even when Israel flat-out refused to consider extending the ten-month construction freeze after it expired. (See "Peace at what price and at what cost?")

The Israeli government in power now also resembles to few, a potential partner for peace. While it has been oft-cited that it is the hardliners in Israel that have achieved breakthroughs in relations with its neighbours (Menachem Begin and peace with Egypt, and more controversially, Sharon and Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza), right-wing Netanyahu is seen by many observers as more of a political player than a leader with the will and courage to end the stalemate with the Palestinians.

Add to this, Netanyahu needs the backing of his coalition partners who take an even more hardline stance in support of maintaining Israel control over the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Hence, how far can he go in opposing them?

All things considered, there was and is very little expectation that much will come out of these renewed peace talks. But is trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ultimately a quixotic endeavour?

I spoke to Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh, who does not think so. In 2002, he co-authored a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal with the former head of the Israeli internal security services Ami Ayalon. (Read more on the text of the peace proposal.)


Thinking critically and acting rationally

Dr Nusseibeh is currently president of the al-Quds University in Jerusalem, where he is working to instill the concept of critical thinking among its Palestinian students. According to him, critical and rational thinking will go far in serving the Palestinian national interest and achieving the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

“It isn't enough to express yourself, express your national sentiments of feelings by holding a gun or by shooting, although that kind of action might make you feel good about yourself.

“For example, I am torn between throwing a stone at an Israeli or shooting, and not doing it. Then calculating the costs and benefits of not doing it, I might come to the conclusion that it makes no sense for me to shoot at the Israeli, because it is invariably counter-productive, from the point of view of my national interests.

“If you are playing chess, you have to take into account, not just what you think, but also what the other side thinks.“

In terms of applying your ability to solve problems, and when it comes to politics and conflict situations like these... you have to take into account the other side, what they think and how they might react to how you might react.”

If you are playing chess, you have to take into account, not just what you think, but also what the other side thinks.

Taking account of the other side, Dr Nusseibeh said the Israelis had a debilitating factor that prevented them from moving forward.

“What plagues them I think initially is this issue of fear. They haven't gotten over that yet and they have to deal with it, the historical fear that comes with the Holocaust and fear that they need to create something that will protect them. “

I think they should liberate themselves from it, but I know that they cannot really liberate themselves from it without my help as their enemy, as their foe.”

Defence and security concerns have been used to back up Israeli demands that any future Palestinian state needs to be a demilitarised one. Palestinian reaction has been to refuse this demand, but according to Dr Nusseibeh, it should be examined with a calmer head.“

This is a reaction we have that is based on passion and pride. When you think about it intellectually, when you think about it mathematically, it is very easy to prove that whatever degree of militarisation that a Palestinian state can acquire is not ever going to be sufficient, either for defending itself from its neighbours, let alone attacking its neighbours.

So any amount of money that is invested in militarisation, any kind of investment, any amount of investment is actually a waste.”

From this perspective, Dr Nusseibeh explained this was why – in the joint peace plan with Ayalon – he supported the idea of a demilitarised Palestinian state.“

It is not a condition that the Israelis are impressing upon me. It is a condition that I, as a Palestinian, it is a condition that I do not want: militarisation.

“I do not want my money to be wasted. It is totally useless. If I have money, I want to invest it in things more useful, like health and education and the environment and economic development in the country.” a Palestinian, it is a condition that I do not want: militarisation.

“A particular position you identify for yourself to represent you can either be a product or reflection of elements of passion and emotion, or can be thought of again and changed to reflect what is really in your national interest.

In line with this, Dr Nusseibeh stressed that violence against Israel was not a viable option for Palestinians.

“If you are looking at it from a passionate, emotional point of view and without analysis, then people support it.

“But over time, people's passions die down and this is what happened to suicide (attacks).This is the reason why suicides died down. It is because the passions slowly settled and people started to come to their senses to see that it was totally disastrous.

“Of course Israeli will tell you that they died down because they built the wall, which is naturally misconceived, because if the passions were high, wall or no wall, there would be suicides or something similar.


dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi