Arafat’s New Point Man

It takes a pretty sophisticated politician to stand in front of a roomful of intifada-hardened reporters and announce that he is "politically naive." Especially if you are Sari Nusseibeh, Yasser Arafat’s new point man in Jerusalem, whose family has been moving and shaking in the holy city ever since a seventh-century ancestor entered it as a general in the conquering Arab army of the Caliph Omar in 637.

Naive or not, the 52-year-old, Harvard-trained philosophy professor has made instant waves since Arafat tapped him in October to succeed the late Faisal Husseini as his political commissioner for Jerusalem affairs. Nusseibeh says with rare candor that violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere. Neither side can impose its will on the other. Violence breeds violence. The time has come, he contends, to give reason a chance, to return to negotiation and dialogue.

Unlike other disenchanted Palestinian intellectuals, however, Nusseibeh is challenging Arabs as well as Jews to come to terms with the heavy price they would have to pay for peace. Most radically, he is telling nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees to give up the dream of returning to their old homes in what is now Israel, the hope which has sustained them through half a century of exile, deprivation and illusion. If they want to come back, he is saying, it will have to be to a Palestinian state, established alongside Israel.

Nusseibeh argues that the step-by-step strategy of the 1993 Oslo accords has failed. "We haven’t created more confidence," he says. "We’ve destroyed even the little trust that was created." His alternative is to go directly to the end game, to define the essential interests of each side, then draw a road map for gradual implementation.

"Then," he says, "we would be looking at the issues we’ve been trying to hide under the carpet. Everything should be above the table. People should be made to take decisions."

The three "basic obstacles," as Nusseibeh presents them, are: Jewish settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Israel conquered those territories in 1967; the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war; and Jerusalem, which both nations claim as their capital. These are the rocks on which the Camp David negotiations foundered last year.

The refugee question, he contends, has to be dealt with by the Palestinians themselves. "This is a Palestinian issue," he says. "We have to come to terms with what needs to be done.

"If the idea is to reach a settlement, then the Palestinians have to recognize that this is a deal-breaker if they insist on implementing the right of return in Israeli territory. Israel will not accept 4 million refugees within its borders. This Israeli position has to be taken into account. It is necessary to deal with the refugees within a two-state solution."

Nusseibeh’s quid pro quo is an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. "Palestinians," he maintains, "will not accept a state that is itself another Israel, a state whose resources and borders are controlled by Israel. If the Israeli side over the past three or four years assumed that it was possible to conclude an agreement in which Israel could retain settlements, the current spate of violence has proven that the Palestinian people will not accept such a position. It is very important for Israelis to come to terms with that. The Palestinian demand is for a state in the entirety of territory occupied in 1967."

As for Jerusalem, Nusseibeh’s solution is to divide the city, keeping open an option to reunite it in the future. "East Jerusalem should be returned to the Palestinians. West Jerusalem should remain with the Israelis. West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital."

Within that framework, he insists on absolute Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the Haram al Sharif, though he stops short of denying any historic Jewish connection to the site of King Solomon’s Temple. The nearest he comes to flexibility, however, is to call for mutual respect between religions. "If we make exclusive claims," he says, "we would not be true to our own faith." He doesn’t elaborate.

Nusseibeh may or may not be a naive politician, but he is a beguiling thinker. Our group of foreign correspondents sat for two hours listening to him. No one left. Yet, for all his appeal to reason, there is something unworldly, utopian perhaps, about his ideas. The chances that they would be implemented seem remote, especially so in the climate of mutual hostility and suspicion generated by the violence of the past 14 months. Didn’t the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, go for the "end game" at Camp David? And didn’t Arafat turn him down?

A Palestinian decision to settle the refugees within their own state, rather than in Israel, Nusseibeh says, would have to be submitted to a referendum. All Palestinians, including those festering in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, would have their say. It is hard to believe they would vote "Yes."

On the other side of the equation, even if some future Israeli government agreed to evacuate all the 220,000 West Bank and Gaza settlers in return for a permanent peace, it is hard to see Israeli legislators uprooting nearly as many again in the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem — and staying in office.

Like an Old Testament prophet, Nusseibeh is telling Arabs and Jews what they must do if they want peace. The rest is up to them. He speaks for himself — he won’t be doing the negotiating.