Karma Nabulsi and Avi Shlaim: The struggle goes on
As US President Barack Obama sends mixed signals of a re-launch of the stalled Middle East peace process, Shahira Samy*
asks Karma Nabulsi and Avi Shlaim for their views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and probes life-long trajectories of resistance
We meet in the graveyard. The perfect spot for some shots, we thought. It's the summer break, no teaching, no students around, only a few tourists wandering about the grounds of an Oxford college.
Petite in demeanour, swift in motion, Karma Nabulsi quickly finds her way to a nearby bench. Seated before me is a fellow of St Edmund Hall, college tutor in politics, university lecturer in International Relations, specialist in late 19th and early 20th-century European history, author of Traditions of War: Occupation, Resistance and the Law, former representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), regular Guardian commentator on Palestinian-Israeli affairs, patron of the UK Palestine Solidarity Campaign, co-founder of the HOPING Foundation, and the list goes on.
In trousers, t-shirt, blazer and trainers, Nabulsi is dressed in black from head to toe, her long thin face concealed by some fluttering, rebellious black strands of hair. She looks weary, preoccupied and rushed -- as usual.
"If I don't do anything for Palestine, I don't feel free," says this activist-turned-politician- turned-diplomat-turned-scholar. "In a sense that's very relaxing", she adds matter-of-factly. In response to my amused "is it?" she's quick to affirm: "All of it connects; all the work I do. When I'm active and engaged in a number of ways, I feel entirely free."
On the Oxford stage as a multitasking scholar is the current chapter in the story of a Palestinian life of exile, hunting down an illusive notion of "home" and "freedom". Hopping around the world from Lebanon to the US, Morocco, France and finally Britain since 1985, Nabulsi has never stopped to think about how long the struggle for Palestine will take. Being "part of the collective" and yearning for freedom, return and liberation has been what has mattered to her the most.
"That's what the movement came out of: a very simple set of principles. And those are the things that still bind us as a people no matter which parties, and no matter what," she says.
It was as an undergraduate in Paris that the activist-to-be felt the ground burning under her feet. Abandoning a psychology degree for a full-time commitment to the PLO, the 18-year-old young woman relocated to the Lebanon of her childhood, a country then shaken up by the ardent nationalist forces of the civil war.
An immense immersion in the "joyfulness" and "purposefulness" of a people engaged in collective resistance was the legacy of this exceptional period in Nabulsi's life, which she nostalgically recalls. It was "my own crowd, close friends with whom I shared beliefs and common values," she says. "Of course, many of those people died. But the way they were part of that revolutionary movement for freedom and the manner in which they gave their lives was so remarkable that I still can't touch it completely."
By the time she left Beirut in 1982, Nabulsi was working for Yasser Arafat on foreign relations. However, it was the year she spent at the United Nations with the PLO delegation in 1979 that polished her art of doing politics on an international level. From the Sandinistas to the South Africans, the wave of liberation movements sweeping around the world during that period formed a supportive bed for the Palestinian cause and forged Nabulsi's growing faith in the struggle for liberation.
At about the same time that the exiled Nabulsi was visiting "that magic place", Palestine, for the first time as a little girl, an 18-year-old young man, brimming with emotion, was swearing the oath of loyalty to the Star of David flag at the beginning of his two years of military service in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).
"It was on a clearing in the Judean hills in the twilight when it was getting dark, and we all shouted in unison 'by blood and fire Judea fell, by blood and fire Judea will rise again,' and there was firing that illuminated the sky. It was an extremely powerful emotional experience," Avi Shlaim says, reminiscing over the memories of his youth.
"It [Israel] was a small country surrounded by enemies, and like all my classmates I felt a very deep bond of loyalty to this state, and I was determined to do anything that I could to defend it. So yes, I was a nationalist, an ardent nationalist and a patriot in those days." He pauses and a calm smile crosses his face. "You have to remember that this was 1964. Before the 1967 war. Before Israel became a colonial empire..."
Moving to Israel with his family at the age of five, the young Arabic-speaking boy had left a life of ease in Baghdad. Nearly 60 years later, Professor Shlaim can count 21 years at Oxford's Middle East Centre and over 45 years of easing his way into British life. Seated in a comfortable armchair in his tidy, book-laden and square-shaped office, I am fitted into a schedule crammed with the marking of exams and the preparation of the proofs of Shlaim's latest book, a hefty collection of articles he has written on the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past two decades.
However, it is an upcoming cycling event that seems to be preoccupying him. Moving around town on a bike, in a very Oxford sort of way, is one thing, but covering 300 kilometres in only three days is something else. Parting with his 59- year-old bicycle in favour of a new 27-speed one eventually helped Shlaim raise ¨4,578 for Medical Aid for Palestinians by taking part in the Palestinian charity's Cycling4Gaza three-day London to Paris fundraising ride.
"One surreal moment," said Shlaim on his return, was when a young Syrian cyclist caught up with him and asked him, sweltering heat notwithstanding, what he thought of the single-state solution. "Normally, I give a 20-minute answer, but Hussam got the two-second version," he says. I am more fortunate than Hussam. When I ask the same question, I get the prolific views so typical of this affable Oxford don.
"The Palestinian flag must go up," he states in his quiet, yet assertive manner. "For me, the most fundamental requirement is that the Palestinians are entitled to a state, to a piece of land on which they can live in freedom and dignity." Justice and legality feature prominently in Shlaim's formula for peace, two concepts that do not necessarily go hand in hand in the history of the intractable conflict.
"The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians," affirms Shlaim. "But I still accept Israel within the 1967 borders as legitimate. Israel was created on the basis of a UN resolution, but this was not just to the Palestinians. It was unjust." He does not mince his words when he adds that, "the real problem in Israel's history began after the victory of 1967, when Israel acquired all this territory which it didn't need and it became an empire [...] the IDF seized it to be true to its name, and it became a colonial oppressor. Since 1967 this conflict has been a colonial conflict, a savage colonial conflict to suppress the Palestinians."
If the young Shlaim defined nationalism as yesterday's ethos, today the grey-headed and established authority on the history of the Arab- Israeli conflict is either criticised, or acclaimed, for a life of scholarship dedicated to painstakingly debunking Israel's Zionist discourse. A pioneer of the Israeli school of New Historians, together with his fellow revisionists Shlaim dug deep into the newly accessible Israeli archives in the 1980s, producing groundbreaking research that has dismissed forever the Zionist rhetoric of the foundation of the state, the events of the 1948 war and beyond.
Over the years, books such as Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, and Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace have also led him to challenge conventional perceptions of the conflict. Rather than viewing it as a simple one that pits Israel against a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab world, Shlaim has set straight the myth of Arab intransigence and demonstrated how the history of the conflict is a result of efforts to suppress Palestinian nationalism.
Therefore, partition becomes the natural solution to the conflict, which, in origin as well as in essence, is between two national movements, Zionist and Palestinian, competing over one territory. On many an occasion, Shlaim has maintained that a one-state solution is not a viable solution to the conflict since it gets away from the fundamental problem: "occupation, occupation, occupation."
"Of course the occupation has to end!" Nabulsi retorts when we examine the politics of the conflict together. "But that is not what the conflict is about!" The tone of her rejoinder rises when she reiterates, "you can't look at the situation simply as a matter of occupation. But of course the practices [of occupation] are always engaged in trying to fragment us and to create divisions. It's classic."
Focussing on what she believes the core of the conflict to be, the fate of three quarters of the Palestinian people is brought into the forefront of the quest for justice. Often deemed the most complex issue in the peace process, the issue of the Palestinian refugees uprooted in 1948 and 1967 has often been deferred to later stages in the negotiations.
"Entirely dangerous!" says an angry Nabulsi, for whom the Oslo Peace Process was nothing but an attempt to manage the conflict rather than to end it. "In conflict resolution, one has to share an understanding of what the conflict is about before it can be solved [...] The refugees must be addressed with dignity. They must be included and not excluded. This is the key to any successful peace process," she maintains.
When US President Barack Obama came to Cairo in June this year, the region was hyped into believing in a "new beginning", and it basked in buoyant anticipation. Captivating a worldwide audience with his oratory, in some 1,000 words of his speech the new US president outlined his views on "the situation between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world."
However, although clear about the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state, Obama nevertheless fell short of calling for an end to the Israeli occupation during his 4 June speech, which took place one day before the 42nd anniversary of the 1967 war, the very same war in which Israel unlawfully occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.
Nor did Obama come close to the politics of redressing the displacement of the Palestinians, opting instead for a vague mention of the "suffering" of the refugees. Obama has now come. And gone. Cairo University has rolled up the red carpet, but Palestinians are still living under occupation, the refugees have not returned home, settlements are still sprouting up on occupied Palestinian territory, and Gazans are still stranded at the Rafah border. Did Obama really come empty-handed? Is the region to witness more than just déjà-vu in the weeks and months to come?
Shlaim does not have a crystal ball to see what the future holds for the war-torn region. Nevertheless, he does foresee a crisis in American- Israeli relations, possibly resulting in the fall of the Netanyahu government and the election of a more centre-left coalition prepared to go along with American demands for a settlement freeze and serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
This shift in policy is due to the stark contrast this international relations specialist sees between Obama and his predecessor. "For the last eight years and in the more distant past as well, America didn't have a policy on the Palestinian issue. It only had a special relationship with Israel [...] Obama now has a balanced policy [...], which includes an Israeli dimension and a Palestinian dimension," he says.
Despite his optimism, Shlaim contends that yes, the substance of the solution, a two-state solution, is the same as that of the outgoing administration. However, in addition to banking on Obama's seriousness in putting pressure on Israel, he also explains why the current Israeli government may yield to pressure. "Binyamin Netanyahu is a [...] man with very little experience of real policy- making [...] He does not have any vision [...] Precisely because [he has no vision] he is susceptible to American pressure [...] The Americans can give him incentives to go along with their outlook for progress to stop settlement expansions and to begin negotiations," he says.
This is not an optimism shared by the more- restrained Nabulsi, however, who is clear about her limited expectations of the new administration and sceptical about its ability to surmount the many obstacles to achieving a settlement that contains some minimal justice for the Palestinians.
Yet, Nabulsi also feels that Obama represents "a different way of doing things". More specifically, Nabulsi sees in America's new president an exposure to a tradition of mobilisation from below. "[It] is not that distant from my own understanding of where the source of sovereignty lies, in that it is popular and the primary principle is that change happens from below, not from above," she says.
Nabulsi maintains that the international community has never lived up to its responsibilities and attempted to solve the conflict in a way that gives justice to the Palestinians. In her opinion, anything that has happened to benefit the Palestinians has come about through their collective work and in spite of the international system. "For Palestinians, there has always been an attempt to control us, and therefore there is always a struggle for us to be able to freely represent ourselves," she adds.
"Popular", "sovereignty", "collective", "representation", "freedom": this recurring vocabulary is unmistakably detectable in her discourse. Nothing pleases Nabulsi more than when I mention the portrait adorning the wall of her office, perched high in a tower overlooking Oxford's spires. "Rousseau is the man!" she says in all the excitement her voice can carry. "It [the portrait] was a gift from a friend because I talk a lot about Rousseau and his work and I write about Rousseau a great deal. After I framed it, I was reading about the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it turned out that the only portrait he had in his study was this same portrait of Rousseau. Isn't that sweet? I've had it since I came to Oxford!"
A love affair with Jean- Jacques Rousseau had scarcely been envisioned in Nabulsi's plans, when, in another turn in her life's journey, she was whisked off from her engagement with the PLO to the heart of Oxford. Those years spent in the early 1990s pursuing a doctoral degree at Balliol sent the burgeoning scholar on a journey of intellectual discovery of Palestine through European history. Researching the laws of war and ethics of resistance in a European context, Nabulsi found fascinating philosophical foundations for many of the things she had participated in, and has been a witness to, as a young woman in the movement.
"In Rousseau I found this dilemma of sovereignty and statelessness and the best articulation of where the source of sovereignty resides. I always knew it, but he defined and described it so sublimely. Sovereignty resides in the people and inside oneself [...] It's not the freedom of the group over the individual, and it's not the freedom of the individual over the group in the classic liberal model that we have today. It is something much more radical and much more real [...] If you look back at the history of European struggles for the establishment of the social contract for free institutions that reflects our popular sovereignty and preserves our freedoms [...] it is so similar to our own [Palestinian] struggle".
A deep involvement in European politics also played a role in Shlaim's intellectual voyage. Sent to London to learn English at 15, he went on to Cambridge to read History. Enrolling for a Masters degree in International Relations at the London School of Economics three years later, little did the fresh graduate know that a coveted career as a diplomat would turn into a devotion to writing about diplomacy. And little did the newly appointed Reading University lecturer also know that the deliberate decision to specialise in Western European integration "because it [the Arab-Israeli conflict] was too close to the bone" would nevertheless give way to the lures of the Arab-Israeli conflict, albeit after many years of resistance.
His tour around the history of the world has nevertheless marked him for life. "Once a historian, always a historian," says Shlaim, whose scholarship falls fully into line with the British historian E.H. Carr's belief that the historian's fundamental task is not simply to record. Rather, a conviction that the historian's mission is to evaluate, assess and pass judgement on historical facts, rather than to act as a chronicler, has sometimes rendered this scholar and writer an "extremist", a "gauchiste", and an "agent of the PLO", at least in the eyes of some.
With the forbearance of someone answering a familiar question, Shlaim's words flow with remarkable ease. "Iraqi, Israeli, Jewish, British... I'm all of these things." There is also an underlying serenity. "I see myself as an Englishman. This may sound strange, with my name and with my foreign accent... but I've lived in this country since the age of 15. Everyone has always been very kind to me, and I've never encountered any prejudice or hostility, and, therefore, Britain is my home. There's no other country where I'd want to live."
With a touch of melancholy, he plays with the notion of cosmopolitanism. "People talk about Jews as cosmopolitans, and I suppose that the description could be applied to me as well. But I think that if I were to define my identity, it would be that of a rooted cosmopolitan, someone who [...] doesn't accept artificial divisions into nation states and between borders."
The rounded, bespectacled head crowned with Middle Eastern curls looks at me and says, "I haven't changed. It's the character of Israel that has changed, and for my part I would like Israel to cease being a colonial oppressor and return to the only internationally recognised borders it has ever had. And those are the armistice demarcation lines of 1949. I reject, and reject completely, the Zionist colonial project."
* The writer is Jarvis Doctorow Junior Research Fellow in International Relations and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East at St Edmund Hall and the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and author of a forthcoming book, Reparations to Palestinian Refugees: A Comparative Perspective.