Accessibility links

Breaking News

New Palestinian Official Causing Controversy - 2001-11-15

The Palestinians' new top official in Jerusalem is advocating an end to violence and significant concessions to Israel if peace negotiations resume. Sari Nusseibeh was recently appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as the political commissioner for Jerusalem affairs. The Palestinian official's positions on the peace process are already stirring controversy.

At the request of President Arafat, Sari Nusseibeh has become the new diplomatic representative of the Palestinians in Jerusalem. He has taken the job formerly held by Faisal Husseini, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack last May. Mr. Nusseibeh is known for consistently holding pragmatic and moderate views on the peace process with Israel, and his new position has given him a powerful platform to express his message of compromise.

Mr. Nusseibeh says more than 13-months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed prove that violence does not work for either side. "Violence leads nowhere. When I say violence leads nowhere I mean that neither the Israelis, [by] their use of violence against the Palestinians, will they be able to impose their will on the Palestinians," he says. "Nor conversely will the Palestinians, by their use of violence or force against Israelis, will they be able to impose their will on Israelis. Violence does not help. Violence breeds more violence, force only force. Given the fact that the use of force only will generate more force it is only rational to look for another path. The path to look for is negotiation and discussion and talking and dialog."

Mr. Nusseibeh is more than a Palestinian politician. He was educated at Harvard and Oxford and is president of Al-Quds University, the largest Palestinian institute for higher learning in Jerusalem.

The gray haired descendant of a prominent Palestinian family, Mr. Nusseibeh traces his roots in Jerusalem back more than 800 years. For five centuries, Mr. Nusseibeh's family has held the keys for the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which many Christians believe marks the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

While Mr. Nusseibeh's political views are generally viewed as practical, his position on the right-of-return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes inside Israel is at odds with the policy stated for decades by Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Nusseibeh says the Palestinian Authority's insistence on the return of millions of refugees within Israel's current borders is what he calls a "deal breaker" that will cause negotiations to fail. "Israel clearly will not accept - in a negotiation over a two-state solution, will not accept - the return of over four-million refugees within its borders," he says. "So what is to be done about this? Is this something that is acceptable from the Palestinian point of view? This is an issue that has to be dealt with if what is wanted is a conclusion, is a settlement, then obviously this Israeli position has to be taken into account."

Palestinian refugee groups have been angered by Mr. Nusseibeh's remarks and have circulated petitions demanding that he be removed from his new position. Mr. Nusseibeh shrugs off the criticism, saying the issue has to be dealt with.

While Mr. Nusseibeh says Palestinian refugees must give up the right to return to land inside Israel, he says Israelis must also understand they must evacuate Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. He says 400,000 settlers must leave the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem before a peace agreement can be reached. "I think one of the greatest harms done to the peace process, as we know over the past seven years, has been the continued, escalating process of settlement, annexation, confiscation of land undertaken by Israel," says. Mr. Nusseibeh. "This is true in the West Bank, but it is even more true within East Jerusalem."

Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after capturing it in the 1967 Middle East war and claims the entire city as its capital. Most countries do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and have their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Nusseibeh acknowledges it may take a "miracle" to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the bargaining table after more than 13 months of bloodshed. He says resumption of dialog is the only "rational" approach, although he warned that time is running out as both sides harden their positions in this continuing conflict.