Do Israelis and Palestinians really want to make peace with each other?
That question is being brought to the fore painfully by the return to politics of a leading Palestinian moderate, Sari Nusseibeh. Ending an eight-year silence about politics, Dr. Nusseibeh, a philosopher who is president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, is calling for wrenching compromises - before it is too late.
The vision of Nusseibeh, who in September accepted an appointment by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as the PLO commissioner on Jerusalem affairs, is simple. He urges that it be adopted before extremism on both sides makes it impossible: a two-state solution without illusions by either side that they can have more than that.
For Palestinians, this means giving up the idea of a large-scale return of refugees to former homes in the Israeli state. For Israel, it means ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
By focusing the two sides on each other rather than looking to foreign intervention, the Oxford-educated Nusseibeh hopes to force them to search for a cure for their core grievances and not just address the symptom of violence through cease-fires.
But there are no signs that anyone is ready to accept his ideas, with Palestinian refugee leaders demanding he recant and Israelis praising his stance on the refugee issue while offering no new flexibility on the settlements.
"The idea in Israel is to say that Nusseibeh is the exception who proves the rule. That if only there were more people like Sari Nusseibeh, there could be peace," says Meron Benvenisti, an author and columnist for Haaretz newspaper. "This approach preserves the myth that the Palestinians want to destroy the state of Israel."
Nusseibeh says he was impelled to go back into politics because of the urgency of the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. He had been a leading activist during the 1987-93 first intifada. "I needed to express myself again in defining what needs to be done to take us out of the mess we are in. Perhaps today is the last chance for a two-state solution."
Nusseibeh told reporters he left politics because he had seen the peace process reach fruition with the Oslo Agreement. But Pinhas Inbari, an Israeli journalist who has followed Nusseibeh's career, says he resigned because he was disillusioned and thought the Palestinian Authority was headed in an undemocratic direction.
Speaking of the Palestinians' traditional adherence to the "right of return" for refugees, Nusseibeh told a press conference: "If the idea is to reach a settlement, it's clear the Palestinians have to recognize it is a deal breaker if they insist on the implementation of the right of return to Israeli territory in totality. Israel will clearly not, in regard to a two-state solution, accept the return of over 4 million refugees to its borders."
Of the settlements, he said: "It's clear that the Palestinians won't accept a state that is itself another Israel, whose resources are controlled by Israel, whose borders are controlled by Israel, 20 to 30 percent of whose land is controlled by Israel and with a population of Israeli settlers throughout the territory of the state."
"Israelis and Palestinians have a mutual interest in their future, and we must work things out rationally," Nusseibeh continued. "Insofar as this is a mutual interest, we are each other's allies, and we have to realize this. Our enemies are our allies, and it is with our enemies that we will share our future, not with the Americans," he adds.
But Nusseibeh has begun to make enemies on his own side. "He has taken himself away from the national camp," says Hossam Khader, a Palestinian legislator from Balata Refugee Camp in the West Bank. "He is trying to obtain the [support] of American and Israeli people, but he will lose his own people at the same time."
"No one should relinquish the right of return - it is the core of our struggle, identity, and soul," Mr. Khader said.
The right of return is based on UN Resolution 194, adopted after the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war in which about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes in what became Israel. It says "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."
In the Israeli mind, the right of return is synonymous with the destruction of Israel. "What Nusseibeh is saying is real progress to get to any kind of understanding," says Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin. "But I want to know if he is expressing his own opinion or if this is something the Palestinians are sending out to find our reaction."
Nusseibeh has not really cleared that up. But he clearly believes he can make a difference. "If I can feel I'm ... creating debate, then I'm doing something."