[Editor's Note: Text differs slightly from the Algemeiner's.]
Such was the case with Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy and the former president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who joined journalist Dan Ephron at CUNY's Leon Levy Center for Biography for "Israel & Palestine: Through the Lens of Biography & Memoir."
The center's director, author Kai Bird, hosted the discussion of Nusseibeh's autobiography, Once Upon a Country, A Palestinian Life, and Ephron's biography of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. The Elebash Recital Hall, beautifully paneled in cherry wood, was filled to capacity with an older crowd of approximately 200.
Nusseibeh is widely credited in politically-correct circles with being a moderate, but has been called out for extremist speech delivered exclusively to Arab audiences. Palestinians have a long history of speaking one way to Western audiences eager for the siren song of peace and another to the "Arab street." Nusseibeh understood explicitly which audience he was addressing at CUNY.
He began by relating how he jumped over a wall separating Palestinian and Israeli territory as a youth in 1967 and walked through Israel for the first time. It was "the most important walk in my life," he explained. "To cross the distance between that which is you ... and that which is the other—very often the enemy. I think that is what made me ... always trying to see the other side."
Nusseibeh recounted how Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, knocked on his office door at al-Quds in 2002 looking to gather grassroots support for a peace deal. By the end of 2003, they had collected a total of 200,000 Israeli and Palestinian signatures. "There's no single document that was signed by so many Palestinians and Israelis," he stated proudly.
"Unfortunately," he added, "things happened elsewhere that made the situation worse," including the death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (who was "quite possibly assassinated," he noted conspiratorially). Nevertheless, observing that Palestinians and Israelis "live in contiguity with one another," Nusseibeh concluded hopefully that "sooner or later enough, people with good sense on both sides ... will again make a difference."
The first question from the audience set a combative tone for the Q&A. With mockery in his voice, a man asked, "What is your opinion on the outlook of President Trump making ... progress on the peace process? And what do the people of Israel think of him?" Some in the audience erupted in jeers and laughter.
The audience responded with sardonic laughter, while someone huffed, "Israel is an apartheid state."
Nusseibeh countered that a considerable number of Israelis are receptive to compromise with the Palestinians. Many in the Israeli military establishment "who are not peaceniks ... understand reality, the challenges Israel faces;" they have the "self-confidence" to make "compromises ... needed to reach peace," he insisted.
As for the Palestinian side, Nusseibeh claimed that those most ready to make peace with Israel are the ones who "fought with Israel" and "spent ... years in jail." He said that they "came out [of jail] fluent in Hebrew and knowledgeable about their enemy. ... [I]n the same way ... their interrogators also came to know them very well."
"And you must always remember that ours is the land of miracles; miracles can happen," he maintained. At that point, an audience member shouted, "Look at South Africa!"
Nusseibeh ended by counseling patience in resolving a conflict that has lasted "a hundred years almost," adding that there should be no rush to do something "dramatic" or "overnight," especially when "our lives and the lives of our children" are at stake.
While the particulars of Nusseibeh's remarks are highly debatable, they were a welcome contrast to the denunciations of Israel that dominate the American Middle East studies establishment. His familiarity with the key players in the region, and his recognition of Israel's security needs, elevated a topic that is too often marked by hostility and rigidity. But does Nusseibeh possess the strength of character to deliver the same message to his fellow Palestinians?
Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.