Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Once Upon A Country ...Once Upon A Peacemaker - Book Review - Sari Nusseibeh

This is a truly important book for anyone wishing to understand fully the Arab / Palestinian - Israeli conflict. It sheds tremendous light on very important events, thus far not fully presented from the Palestinian side, especially that of the non rejectionist Palestinian camp. Sari Nusseibeh is a truly visionary man with tremendous courage and is a highly gifted activist and indeed very clever politician despite his own denials.

I have thoroughly enjoyed, and was often moved by, the first half of the book which dealt with the history of Nusseibeh's family and contained his even handed description of the events leading to 1948 and all the way through the 1967 war and his subsequent return to live in Palestine with his British wife. Nusseibeh's portrayal of the lives of the Palestinians between the wars of 1948 and 1967 was very helpful.

In the second half of the book Nusseibeh hammers in, over and over again, on the tacit unspoken alliance of the extremists on both sides and shows how Israel supported the creation of Hamas as a counter weight to the Fateh and PLO. He coherently and very persuasively presents the thought process that he went through to move from the one state solution to the two state solution and demonstrates very effectively the threats that prolonging the conflict would cause to it.

Nusseibeh was often right at the center of things or at least presents himself as such; we see him as a leading figure in standing up to the Israelis and to the Islamists, we see him as the key engine behind the first intefada, or uprising, and we see him winning the respect and approval of Yasir Arafat. In this, second, half, this book moves from being a truly exceptional account of the personal and family history more into an aggrandizing politician's memoir. This should not reduce nor detract from the tremendous personal sacrifice and commitment Nusseibeh made to his cause.

I have heard of the peace work of Dr. Nusseibeh and read some of his articles and interview for some years and while I admire him more than any other Palestinian public figure, this book troubled me in a number of ways. Unlike the other three Palestinian memoirs, originally written in English, that I have read (Gada Karami, Fay Kenfani & Edward Said) Nusseibeh sought to justify every action he has ever taken, to defend his various historic positions and to settle the scores with those of differing views. Most unlike the other three biographies, the book contained virtually no retrospective sole searching whatsoever and important topics such as his obvious passion and skill for politics vs. his academic eccentric persona were packaged for the purpose rather than thought through. Nusseibeh repeatedly simply presented himself as the reluctant professor, yet left us wondering about his very savvy organizational, political and survival skills. He seemed to know exactly how to deal with wily old Arafat, Hamas, the Israeli intelligence and the various factions of the PLO yet retain the freedom to advance his own agenda as well as build important relationships with Israelis.

The tremendous heights, in which, Nusseibeh holds his father, a former Governor of Jerusalem, ambassador and member of cabinet gives the feeling of an immature biography lacking in the distance to be objective. Indeed the first half of the book contains rework of the some of the father's own unpublished memoirs. Obvious points such as the father's commitment to an idealistic form of pan Arabism, albeit non Bathist and non Nasserist, and Nusseibeh own movement into being Palestinian nationalist, seeing Palestine being in natural alliance with Israel did not cause him to reflect further on the role and thinking of his father. A respectful critique and contrast of the views would have enhanced and not hindered the understanding of his father and need not be disloyal to his memory.

Most grating perhaps is the competitiveness displayed with other Palestinian peace advocates and the various attempts at discrediting them. This was particularly evident in describing the efforts that led to the Geneva Accord, which Nusseibeh referred as the plan by the name of the Israeli negotiator, thus marginalizing the Palestinian partner. At some point Nusseibeh clearly fell out with Hanan Ashrawi and Dr. Barghouti, both articulate advocates of the Palestinian cause and for peace and coexistence with Israel, he made his disdain of them very obvious and has not troubled himself to analyze their positions even in retrospect.