Nascent Nonviolence

Would someone please give this message to American Jews: We're seeing glimpses of a Palestinian partner these days. Don't screw it up.

Reassessment and nonviolence are in the air in the occupied territories. Recent protests in Nablus, Ramallah and Tulkarm have been largely peaceful -- whole cities openly disobeying curfews with candlelight vigils, pot banging and nighttime parades. A spate of surveys in the last month in the occupied territories, as well as Israel proper, have shown a surprising openness among Arabs toward embracing nonviolent means of resistance. And a number of influential mainstream leaders have criticized violence in the last month, opening an honest dialogue within Palestinian society about the state of the intifada, two years on.

There can be no doubt that, ironically enough, this opening is at least partially the result of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy. By refusing to negotiate while violence raged, he has gambled that he could force the Palestinians to say "enough" before Israelis did -- therefore ensuring that whatever political situation eventually emerged out of the second intifada would come about on Israeli terms. In one respect, at least, the strategy is working: The increasing skepticism among Palestinians about suicide bombing has to be at least partially attributed to the realization that violence isn't getting them anywhere with Israel's hard-line prime minister, or the public who elected him. But if Sharon deserves some credit for prompting this reassessment, it must also be acknowledged that some of the questioning is arising organically from within Palestinian society -- much of it sparked by the courageous pronouncements of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority's representative in Jerusalem and the most prominent Palestinian moderate.

To see how Nusseibeh's thinking has gained a foothold, one need only compare recent statements by influential Palestinians to the saber rattling of the past two years: Nabil Amer, the former Palestinian Authority official and former editor of Al-Hayat Al-Jadedah -- the Palestinian Authority's official publication -- wrote in early September that the Palestinians, led by Yasir Arafat, had "failed in the management of the historical process," by choosing violence in the fall of 2000. Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, the moderate Palestinian interior minister, told a Reuters reporter that a new approach to the uprising was needed. "I am not saying this side is to blame, or that," Yehiyeh said. "I'm saying there is occupation, and dealing with occupation in this manner has harmed us. Therefore we have to find other ways to deal with it." Nusseibeh himself has been on a speaking tour in the United States during the last month to push for a new kind of Palestinian resistance. In March, Nusseibeh wrote in the London-based Al-Quds that "resorting to the strategy of nonviolence and its weapons by a primarily unarmed people can directly deprive the Israelis of the advantage of being the stronger military power."

Polls have provided another welcome surprise of late. In a recent survey of 600 Palestinians by the international peace organization Search for Common Ground, 80 percent of respondents said they would support a large-scale civil-disobedience movement. Administered in the territories by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, the poll showed six out of 10 Palestinians agreeing that there is "a need to try some new approaches" to the intifada. Roughly the same percentage of Israeli Jewish respondents said they would "approve" of a nonviolent Palestinian movement. Arab Israelis in the northern areas of Israel -- long feared to harbor simmering resentment that could easily boil over into extremism -- have also shown moderate attitudes of late. A recent poll conducted by the Yafa Research Institute in Nazareth showed that among Arab Israelis respondents in the so-called Triangle area of northern Israel, more than 80 percent wanted to see the violence of the intifada come to an end.

Israeli officials, rightly, don't put much credence in polls or statements -- they want action, usually toward halting suicide attacks against civilians. But the actions that Palestinians have taken in the last two weeks show that there might be something to the poll statistics. First, on Sept. 20, tanks laid siege to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and troops declared curfews in other Palestinian cities after two suicide bombings left six dead in 24 hours. The Palestinian response? Almost completely nonviolent protests in five Palestinian cities. In several places, residents banged pots and pans. Throughout the West Bank, school officials kept their classrooms open in defiance of curfew orders -- a further means of nonviolent resistance. Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University, calls the movement the third intifada.

"It's about time," says Mubarak Awad, a nonviolent activist who organized tax strikes and civil disobedience during the first intifada. (Awad, who recently said it was "impossible" for a Jewish state to exist in the Middle East, was expelled from Israel in 1998 on charges that he broke Israeli law by organizing large-scale civil disobedience.)

To be sure, no one believes that the conflict is nearing a close. There can be little doubt that the work of the Israeli Defense Forces -- and not a newfound Palestinian introspection -- is the most important factor contributing to the recent decline in suicide bombings. And the polls could certainly be misleading. "So a guy named Abdullah comes to your house, maybe he's a member of Hamas, maybe a member of Islamic Jihad, and he tells you what to say . . . The whole notion that you would take seriously a poll coming out of a nondemocratic society is crazy," says Yoram Ettinger, a longtime activist on the Israeli right. Ettinger does have a point: Polls aren't necessarily reliable, and it's no doubt more difficult to get an accurate read of popular opinion in a highly disorganized, authoritarian society. Nevertheless, when taken together with the dramatic drop-off in suicide bombings of the last several months and the increasing boldness of Palestinian peaceniks, the poll results may mean something indeed.

And how has the Jewish world stateside reacted to these glimmers of hope? For the most part, disappointingly. The big story in the American Jewish community this week was a protest last night against a speech by Nusseibeh at B'nai Jeshurun, a Reform synagogue known for its left-leaning, Zabar's-shopping congregants. The protests, which aimed to prevent Nusseibeh from speaking, were organized by the Zionist Organization of America and Americans For a Safe Israel, two of the most hawkish players in an pro-Israel movement that has, of course, moved far to the right during the last two years. "He's a very evil person," Helen Freedman, executive director of AFSI, told me when asked about Nusseibeh, adding that he should be "sentenced to death maybe."

(Officials at Americans for Peace Now, which organized the event, said that the protestors were for the most part peaceful and that Nusseibeh received a standing ovation.)

This link provides a typical attack on Nusseibeh from the Israeli right. The most serious of the charges -- these days, especially -- is that Nusseibeh gave information to the Iraqis in 1991 to help them direct missile attacks at Israel. But it's a charge that has been proven false by efforts such as target="outlink">this one.

Nusseibeh historically has been one of the most outspoken proponents of a two-state solution, and his calls for Palestinians to give up their claim to a "right of return" to Israel have drawn ire throughout the Arab world. In fact it is Nusseibeh's moderation that truly scares his detractors. Nusseibeh's main foil in Israel has been right-wing Knesset stalwart Uzi Landau, who has repeatedly shut down his offices in Jerusalem and accused him of being a "Trojan horse" for Palestinian extremists.

To their credit, the large Jewish groups that carry the most weight in Washington -- the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, to name a few -- are staying out of the B'nai Jeshurun embarrassment. "We didn't invite them. The mainstream Jewish organizations are too politically correct and they never take strong positions anyway," Freedman told me contemptuously. (The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a national Jewish umbrella group, has criticized some of Nusseibeh's more aggressive quotes in the past, but wasn't behind last night's protests.)

In a period of so much uncertainty for Israel, and with a U.S. war against Iraq looming, it's time American Jews recognized the few glimmers of hope that are out there. A handful of terrorists got through, but September was a quiet month for the most part in Israel. Along with the polls and some new nonviolent approaches, the Palestinian people recently called on Arafat to overhaul his government -- a modest exercise of democratic muscle unprecedented in any Arab nation. And, warts and all, Nusseibeh remains the kind of Palestinian whom Israel can deal with -- a man who has sparred with Israel's most dangerous enemies for years in the pursuit of peace. Maybe for some American Jews, when the enemy of their enemy happens to be Palestinian, it's difficult to see him for the potential partner that he is. But if American Jews and Israelis can't talk to Nusseibeh, then the glimmers of hope are for nothing at all.