Reading the memoirs of Sari Nusseibeh (Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life) and Amos Oz (A Tale of Love and Darkness), it is sometimes hard to keep in mind that they are writing about the very same land, that they live less than 25 miles apart.
Sari Nusseibeh is a Palestinian politician and academic, and the life he describes is one of struggle for a land in which his illustrious family has played a central role since the 7th century. Amos Oz is an Israeli writer, and his story is set against the miraculous return of the Jews — including his East European Zionist parents — to their ancient homeland after centuries in Diaspora.
Their narratives seem at times to be mutually exclusive, built on aspirations and grievances that cannot be reconciled. Yet the two men have become good friends and have reached the same conclusion: that the only viable future for their land is as two neighboring states.
They met for this conversation in Berlin, where they had come to share an award. The conversation was moderated by Serge Schmemann, the editor of the IHT editorial pages.
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Gentlemen, both of you in your memoirs write about the same historical moment, the founding of the state of Israel, but it is as if you are writing about totally different events.
In your book, Sari, you write: “The year of my conception, 1948, witnessed the collapse of the Palestinian dream….”
And in your book, Amos, that same moment is one of redemption, when your father tells you: “From now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again.”
How can these two narratives ever be reconciled? Must they not be completely rewritten for there to be peace?
AMOS OZ: I don’t know if it’s necessary to reconcile the narratives. I think the narratives may remain different, and even contradictory. We have to reconcile with each other. We have to agree upon the future, not about the past.
SARI NUSSEIBEH: I think there are some instances where the narratives do have to be reconciled. There are some events we both have to revisit to try to make sure that we see what happened eye to eye. But I agree that in general it is the individuals, it is the people who need to be reconciled.
But to go back to Amos’s father, I think this is something that need not be “reconciled.” For the Jewish people the building of the state of Israel was something very special — much more special than it would be for us, the Palestinians …
OZ: … I think your history is very much the conflict with us, the confrontation with us …
NUSSEIBEH: … Yes, but everything that happens shapes identities, and certainly what happened in 1948 is for us a major, dramatic event that has shaped our thinking and our identity and our present, and probably will continue to shape our future. I’m not sure in what way. But I think there’s a major difference between us and them — if I may call you “them.”
OZ: You may call me whatever you like.
NUSSEIBEH: You have your long-term history and the search to come together again. Then you have the drama of recent history, especially in Europe. We never had this kind of drama in our past. We’ve always been rather “normal” people. I think this is a basic difference between us.
OZ: We’re also looking for some kind of normalcy, but we have become each other’s abnormalcy, I’m afraid.
Let’s talk a little bit, Sari, about childhood. You were a child in Jerusalem just a 20-minute walk from where I was a child, and a few years apart from each other. But you grew up across the barrier when Jerusalem was already divided [after 1948]. I grew up before Jerusalem was divided. What was your conception, your idea, your emotion of those people across the fence, across the wall?
NUSSEIBEH: Well, I never knew any Jews or Israelis before 1967. So as I grew up on my side of the wall, so to speak, I grew up thinking that they were very evil creatures. They had robbed me — and not just me but also, and more importantly, my family — of not just a piece of land, but of a life. I grew up on stories about that life from my parents. I would imagine something like a paradise existing before the wall, a time of which my mother, in particular, was robbed.
Robbed by people who were to me just evil people who came from nowhere, from Mars.
SCHMEMANN: What was your image, Amos? You describe in your book how as a boy you go with your uncle to visit a prominent Arab family. What was the impression you had?
OZ: My initial emotion was also fairly black and white. We were the owners of the country. It was our ancient ancestral land. We knew that other people were living on the land but they should have welcomed us, and they were not welcoming us, even though we were coming back to our own estate. I was brainwashed like any other Zionist little boy.
This first visit with an affluent Arab family in Jerusalem was to some extent an eye-opener for me, because as a child it was the first time I had to confront the fact that these people had a grip on the land. They were the people of the land. They were not idiots, they were not visitors, they were not nomads.
But the main attitude toward the Arabs, in me and around me, was still fear and apprehension. We feared that once the British administration pulled out, the Arabs would kill us all. We thought, we believed, that they were committed to killing us, and they would kill us, because they are the many and we are the few. So there was fear and mistrust. Fear and mistrust.
And this only changed with me when in my teen years I started to read about Palestinians and became obsessed with the Palestinian narrative and the Palestinian story. I didn’t buy it, I didn’t become “pro-Palestinian” — I’m not pro-Palestinian today. But I learned that this narrative is valid and that there is a clash between two valid narratives, two valid claims over the same land. And this contributed to my sense of a colossal tragedy, and the definition of a tragedy is a clash between right and right. Or sometimes a clash between wrong and wrong.
SCHMEMANN: The two of you, of course, did come to accept each other’s presence; you became friends. Yet it’s apparently easier for you to meet here in Berlin, say, than in Jerusalem. Is it still possible for you to actually get together in Jerusalem and to have something resembling a normal friendship in your own land?
NUSSEIBEH: It has become harder. Paradoxically, I think immediately after the 1967 war [when a victorious Israel reunited Jerusalem], when this wall between black and white fell, there was more opportunity for people from both sides of the fence to make contact. I know for instance that my father, a lawyer who knew people on the other side, re-established those connections. And they introduced us to their children. So immediately after ’67 there was a kind of hope that maybe the barrier was broken and that maybe things could be put together again. I’m not sure it exists any more.
OZ: Many of us don’t go to Palestine. I don’t go to Palestine unless I’m explicitly invited by a Palestinian. If I’d go to Palestine for tourism, if I’d go into Palestine for sightseeing, if I went into Palestine just for a shortcut from Jerusalem to Arad, which I never do, I’d feel guilty, I’d feel like an invader. So I only go to Palestine when I get an explicit invitation from a Palestinian, which happens from time to time. Not very often.
SCHMEMANN: Was it different before? Was there a time when you might have gone to Ramallah for lunch?
OZ: Yes. Immediately after ’67, as Sari just mentioned. Immediately after the ’67 war, I would go to Ramallah to eat in a good restaurant or to see people, or to talk to people, just out of curiosity. There was a sense of the temporary then. There was a sense that this situation of Israeli occupation all over the West Bank was an interim situation; very soon the Jordanians would come back or there would be some Palestinian entity, there would be some solution. So in the meantime, why not enjoy this adventure of traveling abroad without needing a passport and a visa? This is gone now; this is gone now.
SCHMEMANN: Would you feel the same way, Sari?
NUSSEIBEH: Now that Amos is saying this, I remember immediately after ’67, my friends and I would go around visiting different places in Israel. But I don’t do it now. It’s no longer a joy for me to do it.
SCHMEMANN: Reading your two books back-to-back, two enlightened men who support the two-state solution, I’d hoped to come out optimistic about the future. But to be honest, I came out feeling that peace may not be possible, that it is not going to happen. You write, Sari, that every momentous breakthrough only leads to “another dead end.” And in one of your essays, Amos, there’s a passage about “an unfathomable rift between two sides in Israel, one side convinced that there’s no survival with the occupied territories, the other no survival without them.” How can you still believe that peace is possible?
OZ: Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that the vast majority of Israeli Jews now know that at the end of the day there will be a partition and a two-state solution. Do they like it? They don’t like it. Will they be dancing in the streets when the two-state solution is implemented? They will not be dancing in the streets. Particularly because they don’t trust the Arabs. They say, give them a state and they will demand more. I guess, and this is for Sari to answer, but I guess that the majority of the Palestinians will also not be happy with a two-state solution. The bad news is the leadership. We desperately need courageous, visionary leadership on both sides.
NUSSEIBEH: I think that the two-state solution is possible, continues to be possible. And I think both sides realize that a two-state solution will put an end to the conflict. But the problem is that nothing seems to be leading in that direction. Quite the contrary, we seem to be going around in the same circle, or even going backward.
On the Palestinian side, there’s the division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority; there’s the fact that we now have a major problem in coming to agree on something like a state, or a peace agreement with Israel. Nonetheless, I think it’s possible. It’s a question of something happening or something coming up, whether it’s a leader or something else, in our society or in yours, or in both, that will somehow break the barrier. It’s like looking for a political magician.
OZ: There’s an urgent need for an emotional momentum, for an emotional breakthrough. The conflict is not mainly a real-estate conflict, and it’s certainly not mainly a religious conflict. It’s a conflict of emotions, of hurt feelings, of mistrust and insult and pain and humiliation and fear — on both sides. It is tremendously important to create a change. I think of that wonderful example President Sadat set 30-something years ago when he came to Israel, and overnight the Israelis melted. Those Israelis who before the visit said they would never give back the whole of Sinai, that Sinai was more important than peace, melted like butter and were willing to hug Sadat and embrace him and give back every last inch of Sinai in return for peace.
Something similar is necessary on both sides today. Some emotional gesture, some recognition of the injustices, some recognition of the suffering of the past. I think an Israeli leader should take the initiative because the Palestinians are under Israeli occupation. I think an Israeli leader should go to Ramallah, to the Palestinian National Council, and address the Palestinian people the way President Sadat addressed the Israelis in the Knesset in 1977. Say to the Palestinians: Yes, we Israelis take upon ourselves some of the responsibility for the tragedy of the past. Not all of it, but some of it. What is done cannot be undone, but we will do whatever we can to correct the errors of the past and to heal the wounds of the past.
And perhaps also say to the Palestinian people that the first issue we need to deal with is the refugee issue, because this one is really urgent. Jerusalem is not urgent, it can wait. It can go unresolved for another generation, it can be unresolved for three generations. The refugees are hundreds of thousands of people decomposing in dehumanizing conditions in refugee camps. Israel cannot take these refugees back or it would not be Israel. There would be two Palestinian states, and there would be no Israel. But Israel can do something, along with the Arab world, along with the entire world, to take those people out of the camps, into homes and jobs. Peace or no peace, as long as the refugees are rotting in the camps Israel will have no security.
NUSSEIBEH: I agree. Whether there is or isn’t a solution, the refugee problem is a human problem and it needs to be resolved. It cannot just be shelved day after day after day in the hope that something will happen. The human dimension is far more important in this whole conflict than the territorial.
SCHMEMANN: Given the depth of the emotions involved, of the grievances, the two-state solution is going to require major sacrifices, it will feel, as Sari has said, like an amputation both for Israel and for Palestine. What are the major things each of us will have to sever, to surrender?
OZ: Palestine is the home of the Palestinians in the same sense that Norway is the land of the Norwegians. And the Palestinians are being asked to give up part of their home. This is a huge sacrifice, which very few nations have been asked to make. For us, the land of Israel is our ancestral land and the only homeland we’ve ever had as a people. And both sides will have to part with some of their historical claims, some of their longing, some of what they regard as their legitimate rights, in order to have a future. They will have to pay with the currency of the past in order to gain some future.
NUSSEIBEH: What you have to part with is some emotional tie, some beliefs. That’s very painful. Yet I don’t think it’s a major issue, to tell you the truth. It’s totally senseless for the Palestinians and Israelis to be in this situation, creating pain for each other. It’s endless and useless and pointless. If the world would step in and say we’re prepared to help set up a new vision for you, I think that the tie can be broken with the beliefs and the past, and people can go fully into the future.
OZ: But you, Sari, personally, let me ask you: The notion that Arad, where I live and where you have visited me, is no longer Palestine, that it is never going to be part of Palestine, is this a painful realization, a sacrifice?
NUSSEIBEH: No. I’m now looking for something similar to Arad in Palestine, and I’m trying to build my own dream there. And I think that as long as we have good relations between Israel and Palestine and I can come and visit Arad …
OZ: … any time …
NUSSEIBEH: … I don’t think there’s any problem.
SCHMEMANN: What is often said about the Middle East is that everybody knows how it’s going to end up, but nobody knows how it’s going to get there. Is that true?
OZ: I disagree. I think it should end in a solution. But unfortunately we do not know if that is how it’s going to end. We’re in a rut and we don’t know how to get out of it. It’s not going to happen by itself. But what’s been happening over the past 10, 15, 20 years is that people have actually come to think that it will come about by itself. Yet as each day passes, it sort of fades from being possible. If it fades out totally, we have a problem, a major problem.
SCHMEMANN: The two of you have found a common language, a common vision of the future, a friendship. Yet at the same time your countries have changed and moved further apart. The sort of European-oriented Palestinian nobility from which you come, Sari, has lost its leading role. A different Palestinian elite is in charge. And in your case, Amos, the Ashkenazi kibbutz movement which you describe in your book, with the khaki shorts and the gun and the whole romance, that, too, is gone.
OZ: I’m not nostalgic about the old times. Those were the 1950s or the 1940s. Those were the answers for those times; they are not the answers for these times. Politically speaking, the fact remains that Prime Minister Netanyahu today stands left of where Golda Meir stood in the 1970s. If Netanyahu came forth then with the same two-state solution policy that he espouses now, he would be thrown out of Golda Meir’s Labor party as a leftist. When my colleagues and I started advocating the two-state solution in 1967, there were so few of us we could have conducted our national assemblies in a public telephone booth. That means the whole country, the whole mess of Israel has moved to the leftward, pragmatic part. Is this sufficient for the change I’m waiting to see in Israeli society? Certainly not. But let’s not ignore the change.
NUSSEIBEH: I think the same is true on the Palestinian side. If one or two people started talking about a two-state solution back in 1967, they were either bombed or shot at. Now the two-state solution is an acceptable solution. The question now is not whether things have changed, but whether the change is going to continue in the same direction, or whether the time comes when we look back at a time when a two-state solution actually seemed possible, but no longer is.
NUSSEIBEH: Earlier today Amos was saying that what constitutes a breakthrough is an emotional transformation, an event that brings people to open up their eyes to one another. I insist that this is still possible, everything is still possible. What we need is leadership, imagination, vision.
OZ: Yes, I second that. Everything is still possible.
Serge Schmemann, Sari Nusseibeh and Amos Oz. A writer and Editorial Page Editor of the International Herald Tribune; a Palestinian professor of philosophy and president of the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Until December 2002 he was the representative of the Palestinian National Authority in Jerusalem; an Israeli writer, novelist, and journalist. He is also a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Since 1967, he has been a prominent advocate and major cultural voice of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respectively. Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh live a few miles apart in the Holy Land but inhabit different worlds. Oz and Nusseibeh met in Berlin to discuss the violent riddle that is the Middle East.