Infected by Intellectuals

The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After by Edward W Said 345pp, Granta, pounds 15Edward Said is an eloquent advocate of the Palestinian cause in the west, but he is also a hate figure for both the Israeli right and American neo-conservatives. Like Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, Said is an independent and controversial critic, a prolific writer with broad intellectual interests in numerous cultures. Above all, however, he is a romantic nationalist and political maximalist.

This essay collection, which addresses mainly an Arab audience, details Said’s disillusionment with the Palestinian political, business and intellectual elites, and his deep anger at most sections of Israeli society. It is in stark contrast to his well-crafted memoir Out of Place – an act of reclaiming both Palestine and a Palestinian identity.

Said’s essays commence with a range of subjects, yet all end with a recounting of the Palestinian tragedy. His narrative goes like this: the peace process in the 1990s is a betrayal of the past by the ‘cowardly and slavish’ Palestinian leadership. In Said’s eyes, there is corruption, police brutality, rising unemployment, an absence of human rights and a total lack of democracy. ‘The Palestinian Authority is at bottom a mafia.’ Because of his forthrightness, coupled with his inability to look away, he was banned from entering his spiritual homeland, and his books were confiscated from Palestinian bookshops by Arafat’s administration in the summer of 1995.

For Said,”pragmatic’ is a nauseating word’. He believes that the Oslo Accords put ‘an end to idealism and vision’ and that Arafat has not negotiated, but surrendered. Yet many Palestinians have rebuked him for his pessimism and his refusal to spell out alternatives. He has no suggested borders, no plan on the division of Jerusalem. His destination is far more heroic – the struggle of the Palestinians is not to establish ‘a parochial little entity whose main purpose is to give the world another airline’, but to transcend themselves as a small people and to fight for justice in the world. Wheeling and dealing in short-term nationalism was never his stock in trade.

Other Palestinians, who have negotiated with the Israelis rather than engaging in intellectual discourse with them, understand that their opponents’ narrative is different. They may abhor and denigrate it, but they recognise that it is as real for Israelis as their own is for Palestinians. Said’s refusal of that recognition places Israelis in a state of denial from which they must be rescued. ‘Reality must be improved and changed, not accommodated to.’ His insistence that there is only one narrative allows him virtually to airbrush out the Israeli peace movement and to glorify extremely marginal figures in Israel. For Said, the sickness of Oslo is an infection spread by the Israelis: even before 1992, he writes, ‘we had already been infiltrated by their intellectuals and policy elites’.

Yet he is always ready to debate and discuss with Israelis – especially the ‘new historians’, whose analysis has punched holes in the traditional view that all the Palestinians left voluntarily in 1948. Said, however, utilises intellectual endeavour only if it fits into his unchanging narrative. Thus an encounter with Benny Morris, the first new historian to publish Israeli archival material on the expulsion of Palestinians, leads Said to conclude that Morris did not draw the correct conclusions from his work – it was not a partial expulsion, Said maintains, but a total one, according to a preordained plan.

Selectivity leads to generalisations – and there are many. Said says that after atrocities, ‘Kill the Arabs’ was a frequently heard refrain among ordinary Israelis. It is well known that the moronic followers of the late, unlamented Rabbi Meir Kahane would rush to the scene of an incident and incite hatred with such cries. But this blanket assumption paints the Jews as Israel’s willing executioners.

Said’s way forward? That the Israelis should acknowledge what they did to the Palestinians in 1948 and bear responsibility for all the Arab deaths in all the wars. This comes before all else – ‘The peace process is reversible.’ He recognises that the Israeli narrative is changing due to the work of the new historians in Israel. But Said also asks: ‘Where are the Palestinian new historians?’ This poses a further question: as long as many Arab archives remain closed, how can Said argue with such certainty that he knows all the facts and is not merely an unwitting participant in the megaphone war?

Said repeatedly writes about his genuine desire for coexistence with the Israelis and occasionally about their right to self-determination. But does this mean national self-determination? In an interview in the Israeli press last month, Said espoused the idea of a bi-national state over a two-state solution. The Jews should give up the burden of their sovereignty and satisfy themselves with being a minority in a pan-Arab structure. Yet he also admitted his worries about whether this minority would be treated fairly. Said writes that ‘collective memory is a people’s heritage, but also its energy’. If this is true for the Palestinians, why should it not be so for the Jews? Unfortunately, brilliant scholarship does not always imply great insight; it is the squalor of the refugee camp and the suffering of its inhabitants that differentiate theory from practice.

Guardian 23 September 2000

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