- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

JERUSALEM Yasser Arafat's new point man in Jerusalem says the Palestinians erred in appearing to insist on the right of millions of refugees to return to Israel a key reason peace talks fell apart.
In an interview with the Associated Press in his office, philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh said the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state, "not in a way that would undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state."
"Otherwise, what does a two-state solution mean?" he asked. "Maybe there wasn't enough work done at the level of public opinion … with the Palestinian community, to try to articulate exactly what this really means."
Such public introspection is not widespread today among Palestinians, bitter and angry after a year's fighting that has killed about 700 of their people. But it's not altogether surprising from Mr. Nusseibeh, 52, noted for his independence of mind.
Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Mr. Nusseibeh always charted a difficult course. In 1986, he was severely beaten by Palestinian militants after giving a lecture on tolerance; in 1991, he was jailed by Israel for three months, accused of spying for Iraq.
Later that year, he emerged as a main behind-the-scenes Palestinian figure at the 1991 Madrid conference. But two years later, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo accords, Mr. Nusseibeh surprised many by deciding "that now that things had gone in the right direction, it wasn't necessary for me to stay in politics."
He contented himself with being president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem and building it into one of the largest and most respected Palestinian academic institutions, remaining untainted by the corruption that plagued Palestinian public life in subsequent years.
That quiet phase ended a few weeks ago, when Mr. Arafat tapped him to take over for the late Faisal Husseini as the Palestinians' chief envoy in the city Palestinians see as their capital.
It was not an unnatural choice.
Mr. Nusseibeh's family has been in Jerusalem for centuries. His father, Anwar, was defense minister of Jordan before Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. The family by tradition hold the post of "keeper of the door" of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity's holiest shrines a post given to a Muslim family to avoid arguments among Christian sects.
Hair whiter but eloquence undiminished, Mr. Nusseibeh is back in the spotlight, giving interviews, nurturing diplomatic contacts, reaching out to Israelis and speaking frankly to his own people.
Using violence as a tool on either side is wrong, he says, and the new Palestinian uprising lacks planning or purpose. "I don't think there is a strategy. There is a tragedy," he said. "We have entered into a whirlpool of the making of the two sides interactive mistakes, action and reaction."
But the father of four also emerges as one of the few remaining optimists here a humanist with faith in the decency of ordinary people.
"I think that in the final analysis, there is far more in common between Israelis and Palestinians as human beings than there are distinguishing features that set them apart as Muslims and Christians and Jews," he said.
Mr. Nusseibeh's formula seems very close to what President Clinton proposed in the last weeks of his administration a Palestine on virtually all the lands Israel seized in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians largely forgoing the "right of return" for almost 4 million refugees and descendants.
Some officials on both sides say they came tantalizingly close to such a deal in last-ditch talks that ended inconclusively about a week before the February election that brought hard-liner Ariel Sharon to power and thus removed Israel's willingness to contemplate such sweeping compromise.
Mr. Nusseibeh insisted that a two-state solution Palestine for the Arabs, Israel for the Jews is still possible, and if the sides "get their act together, they can come to an agreement within a very few months," even under Mr. Sharon.
Mr. Nusseibeh's vision for Jerusalem is one in which the city is divided into Israeli and Palestinian sides, but with "as much unification of every kind, including services, including plans, including everything you can think of."
That seems a long way off at a time when ordinary Israelis, who have lost almost 200 people themselves, are so wary of Palestinian hostility that even the most accommodating are interested not in a political marriage, but in divorce.
"It's a dream," Mr. Nusseibeh countered. "Jews have to think not in terms of separating themselves from the Muslims or Arabs, [but] of knitting a life together.
"I think it's possible."

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