A prominent Palestinian came before the local Jewish community this week to make his case for a "federation" solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, was in Philadelphia to give a keynote speech at the signing of a charter that would expand a Middle Eastern dental school collaboration to an international "Alliance for Oral Health Across Borders."
With funding from the Morton Charlestein estate, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia quickly put together a luncheon to feature the Palestinian professor at the Jewish Community Services Building the day before representatives from 41 dental organizations around the world met.
Though Nusseibeh was not directly involved in the dental partnership, the concept stemmed from a conference that his university and Hebrew University-Hadassah established in 1997, which in turn led to the creation of a center for Middle East dental education.
Building on that collaboration, the charter calls for dental professionals worldwide to work together to promote international research, global health and peaceful relations. As part of the initiative, Temple University will host two Israeli and two Palestinian dental students for two weeks in September.
Efforts like these "can bring people together and contribute in a modest way to bring peace in the world," said Adam Stabholz, dean of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Faculty of Dental Medicine.
After Stabholz's comments, Nusseibeh took the podium to outline his idea for a much larger — and more politically controversial — peace plan. He's had a lot of experience in developing such plans, having worked as a senior Palestinian negotiator and adviser and having authored several books outlining ideas for what a resolution to the conflict could look like.
Now, 44 years after the 1967 Six-Day War, he said, "we have to come up with something totally new to break free."
He proposes a Palestinian-Israeli federation comprised of two separate governments with porous borders and a shared capital.
"It's impossible by now to pick up a knife and saw" Jerusalem into sections, he said.
Likewise, he said, the demographic and geographic realities have changed since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
"If we want to make peace, we have to redraw the lines," based on current ethnic divisions, he said.
In order for the federation to work, he continued, Israel must help strengthen the Palestinian Authority so that Israeli Arabs won't fear losing their standard of living if they join it. That starts with granting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza more basic human and civil rights such as the freedom to move, work and access services anywhere in the country, Nusseibeh said.
Israel could phase in those rights starting with everyone over 90 years old, then those over 80 and so forth, closely monitoring security, he said, "so that as the doors are opened slowly, no threat is, in fact, sustained."
That doesn't mean peace negotiations should be dropped, Nusseibeh said.
"I would go for any peace agreement that anybody can think of and can bring the two sides to agree upon," said Nusseibeh, who was a leader of the first Palestinian intifada but has long been known as a moderate voice, sometimes shunned by the Palestinian leadership.
That's particularly crucial right now, he said, as the Palestinian Authority moves forward with its quest to seek unilateral statehood at the United Nations in September.
"This is a time when Israel is in a position to navigate and I think it can do it," he said.
If the Palestinians attain such a declaration, he said, they will pursue "a diplomatic onslaught against Israel" and in the end, "we will still have to sit and decide how to get out of this mess."
The crowd gathered for his talk spanned the political spectrum, and included several area rabbis and activists. Some interviewed complimented Nusseibeh's idealism, but many expressed skepticism about his proposed solution.
Rabbi David Ackerman of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, said Nusseibeh presented cogent steps, but it would be difficult to imagine any Israelis supporting a plan that seemed more like a one-state solution.
Rabbi Robert Layman, a retired regional director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and former head of the Board of Rabbis, agreed with Nusseibeh's assessment that a true pursuit of peace must come from both entities, outside of any "prodding or interference" from the United States. But the proposed federation — given the history of relations between Israelis and Palestians — would be "pie in the sky."
"I just wonder how many other Palestinians feel like him?" asked Layman, who had raised the question about Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, with Nusseibeh earlier.
Nusseibeh, who called Hamas "bullies" who could be "outgrown," admitted that he didn't have any sort of coalition backing him, as he did years ago when he was involved in collecting 500,000 signatures for an agreement he signed with Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet.
That 2002 plan supported a two-state solution, calling for unequivocal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, relinquishment by the Palestinians of what they believe is their right of return for refugees to Israel and demilitarization of Palestine.
In a way, Nusseibeh said after his talk, the federation idea combines principles of both one- and two-state solutions. Israelis would never agree to a "mixed salad of ethnicities" in a one-state solution, Nusseibeh said, so the federation establishes two separate political entities. Like some European countries, he said, the two governments might have a joint market or shared resources.
"It's an extremely mind-boggling proposition," Nusseibeh said. "It's going to anger many people on both sides."