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A Palestinian optimist

Once Upon a Country A Palestinian Life Sari Nusseibeh, with Anthony David Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 544 pp., $27.50

April 01, 2007|Jeffrey Goldberg | Jeffrey Goldberg is the author of "Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide" and is a staff writer at the New Yorker.

We are in a bleak time, of course, and so it is particularly stirring to read of Nusseibeh's first visit to Israel proper after the Six-Day War in 1967 erased the border on the West Bank. (He grew up in East Jerusalem, a few hundred yards across no-man's-land from Oz's childhood home.) He lived for a time on an Israeli kibbutz and found fine people there, not monsters at all. "At the deepest metaphysical levels, Jews and Arabs are 'allies,' " he writes.

Nusseibeh came to think this way in part because of his father, a onetime Jordanian-appointed governor of Jerusalem, who was a fierce opponent of Zionism but not of Judaism. The father, like the son, was also a realist about the permanency of Israel, and Nusseibeh recounts a conversation between his father and a PLO official named Yasser Amer that took place after the Israeli victory in 1967.

" 'Tell them,' Father told Amer, referring to the leaders of the PLO, 'to go straight for negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution.' Father assumed, perhaps correctly, that in the wake of Israel's victory over the Arab states, a peace offer from the PLO might just bear some fruit. 'And do it now. If you wait, the Israeli position will harden.' "

Nusseibeh reports laconically: "The PLO ignored the advice." As his story unfolds, we learn that it is something of a family tradition, to have its sound advice ignored by the PLO. "Once Upon a Country" is not, strictly speaking, a political memoir, because Nusseibeh is at best an unenthusiastic and imperfect politician, too idealistic (he is quite taken by Thomas Jefferson) and too high-born to fight it out in the muck of Palestinian politics. Early in his political career, shortly before the first uprising, Nusseibeh was set upon by a gang of Palestinian "activists" who attacked him outside his classroom at Birzeit University in the West Bank -- he had just finished teaching a philosophy class -- for the crime of meeting with an Israeli politician. "Five kaffiah-wearing attackers came right at me," he writes. "As they attacked me with fists, clubs, a broken bottle, and penknives, I tore myself away from them and ran into an open elevator." His students helped him escape but not before his attackers broke his arm.

The attack did not scare him away from engagement of the hardest sort -- he made it his job to build a civil society in a hostile place, to carry the idea of democracy to his people. Even after his three-month imprisonment, he kept at his work, counseling Palestinians against hate and mythmaking.

Like many Palestinians and Israelis of goodwill, he saw the Oslo Accords -- which grew in part from the Israeli acknowledgment that Palestinian desires were neither ephemeral nor extinguishable -- as a kind of miracle, and he captures, beautifully and melancholically, the exaltation their announcement brought. "I stared down from my perch" -- at Orient House, the PLO building in East Jerusalem -- "at the singing throng with their nationalist songs, hardly believing that we had really done it. Peace. Liberation. No more politics! America! Monticello!"

It was not to be, of course. Israeli and Palestinian politicians and clerics conspired against the success of the accords, and Nusseibeh spares neither side, although he argues that Israel's decision to allow the continued expansion of West Bank settlements sealed the fate of the peace process. He is not entirely incorrect here: Rabin, the prime minister who famously learned from the stupidities of the first uprising, loathed the settlers, but he knew that his partnership with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat placed his governing coalition on unstable ground, and politics demanded he acquiesce to at least some of the demands of the right. It was not enough for the settlers and their supporters, one of whom assassinated Rabin in 1995.

Nusseibeh writes about the peace process, its petty conflicts and many failures, at a level of detail that could prove wearisome to the general reader. But even in this overlong section, indispensable themes emerge. Because he is not an enemy of Jewish nationhood, his criticism of Israel's excesses has genuine credibility, and I hope it is heard in Jerusalem. And because he is a Palestinian whose sacrifices for the cause of his people are real, his criticism of Palestinian extremism -- he courageously calls Hamas what it is, an anti-Semitic hate group -- and of Arafat, whom, he argues, "blew" a chance for a deal at the Camp David peace talks in 2000, should be heard in Ramallah and Gaza.

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