When the defintiive history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is written, one of the true heroes will be not a warrior, but the self-effacing scholar/diplomat Sari Nusseibeh, who — virtually alone among all contemporary players — has the courage to tell people what they do not want to hear, but has also developed concrete strategies for resolving the conflict.
Nusseibeh, a scholar of Islamic philosophy, President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and a former PLO Cabinet minister under Yasser Arafat, famously co-authored the People’s Voice accord, which remains the best, bravest, and clearest plan for two competing nationalisms. Together with former Israel Navy and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, the People’s Voice garnered more than 500,000 signatures — nearly 200,000 on the Palestinian side.
I had the pleasure of hearing Nusseibeh speak last night at Claremont McKenna College, and meeting him afterwards. With the current despair over peacemaking, Nusseibeh’s proposal is a genuinely new idea — and one that deserves the endorsement and assistance of the Obama Administration.
Nusseibeh noted that neither side’s leadership is prepared to make the compromises for peace at this stage, either because of weakness, ideological rigidity, extremist vetoes, or a combination of all of these. Thus, his proposal is to allow the Israeli and Palestinian publics to take the matter into their own hands. How could this be done?
George Mitchell, Nusseibeh suggested, should take an American peace plan (and he made it clear that it should be the People’s Voice framework) to both Netanyahu and Abbas.
He should then publicly challenge Netanyahu to place this plan on the Israeli ballot as a referendum. Netanyahu would not have to endorse the plan, but rather allow the voters to decide whether they would accept it as long as the other side does.
On the Palestinian side, he should publicly challenge Abbas to call for new elections (due in the PA thus year in any event) and run on that platform for his presidential campaign — accepting the plan as long as the Israeli electorate does.
Nusseibeh believes — and I agree with him — that such a public offer would be difficult for either side to refuse. It would not require Netanyahu to endorse the plan, but would undermine him politically if he refuses to allow the voters to decide. It would give Abbas a concrete platform and plan to rid the Palestinians of the occupation.
If the Obama Administration starts another round of negotiations, Nusseibeh argued, it will be drawn into an endless labyrinth. He’s right.
Both sides will have very strong incentives to vote yes — the side that votes no will very clearly be at fault for refusing an end to the conflict.
What Nusseibeh didn’t say is that the United States must send a strong signal about how important a yes vote is, and how difficult it will be to maintain strong political support for Israel in the US if it is seen as the obstacle. The Arab League must do the same for the Palestinians. The EU must do the same for both sides.
This is worth a try. It is better than anything else yet proposed. Is anyone listening?