Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon spoke this week at the University of Washington campus. Nusseibeh is President of Al Quds University in Abu Dis (East Jerusalem) and a leading Palestinian voice against violence and in favor of a negotiated settlement with Israel. Ami Ayalon is the former head of the Israeli Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI) who also favors an immediate negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine.
I was immensely pleased that their lecture audience filled the largest lecture hall in Kane Hall and spilled over into an overflow room next door. One thousand people or more heard their wise words of moderation. Several stories Ayalon and Nusseibeh told stood out in my mind as representative of their political outlook:
Ayalon told the audience that a Palestinian friend (Ayalon as a senior Israeli government figure participated in many negotiation sessions with his Palestinian counterparts) whom he met at a conference in London approached him to say: “Ami, we’ve won.” Ayalon replied: “What do you mean, you’ve won?” The Palestinian replied: “We’ve won the struggle and you’ve lost.” Ayalon continued: “How can you say that you’ve won? Your country is a shambles. Your people live in abject misery. Almost anything of any value to you has been destroyed.” The Palestinian answered: “Thoughout the last fifty years of conflict, the Palestinians have suffered no matter what happened. While you Israelis hardly suffered at all. We have made it our goal in life to make you know the same suffering as we have felt. As long as we suffer, you shall suffer. Now you know our suffering. We have won.”
Ayalon’s point was that no one can ‘win’ this battle. Victory means devestation and constant bloodshed–a situation neither side can afford.
Nusseibeh talked about the issue of ‘rights’ versus ‘interests.’ He said that both the Palestinians and Israelis have ‘rights.’ The right to live in peace and safety. The right to have refugees return to their homeland (Palestinians). The right to settle the West Bank and Gaza (Israelis). But ‘rights’ are not absolute. What each side must do is prioritize its rights and determine which ones it must have and which ones it can live without. Losing such rights is of course very painful to each side. But by determining which rights are most critical and obtaining those rights, each side will achieve some of its national aspirations and enable its citizens to make a life in safety, peace and security. In this sense, interests are more valuable than rights in finding a way to compromise and settle the conflict.
Ayalon noted the uniqueness of the Nusseibeh-Ayalong peace initiative by saying: “All previous peace proposals came from outside the region and were ‘paraachuted’ into it by foreign governments…whether it be the Rogers Plan, Madrid, Tenet, Mitchell. Rarely have the Israelis and Palestinians together come up with a plan. The Nusseibeh-Ayalon proposal springs from within the Middle East. It is a grassroots concept that comes from the bottom up, rather than top down like all preceding proposals. It is also unlike the recent Geneva Accords in that it is not being proposed to score political points and help advance a political agenda (Ayalon meant that the Labor Party leaders and Palestinian polliticians behind the Accords hoped to use them to come back to power). Ayalon pointed out that he does not want to topple any government and has no political agenda.
While I admire Ayalon’s righteousness and political rectitude, my only doubt about his plan is how will it be carried out if not by politicians? The weakness of all previous peace plans (you could go all the way back to the Brit Shalom bi-national state concept of the 1920s) is that none of them had a political constituency within either community. In order for a plan to work, I believe there must be a political campaign that has muscle and that makes it work.
This event was hosted by a local Mideast peace organization, Find Common Ground. The community owes them a debt of gratitude for hosting such wise and tolerant speakers whose views represent a breath of hope in an otherwise bleak Mideast.