The First Step
A short while ago I was invited to present my views on the current 'peace process' to an invited group of guests at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Aside from a small number of individuals from the university itself, and one Arab UN ambassador, the audience of about fifty people comprised reporters, news directors, and columnists from television, newspapers, and radio. What I had to say was described by the title of my remarks—Misleading Images and Brutal Realities—which argued that the picture given in the U.S. media as well as by the U.S. government of a wonderful progress toward peace in the Middle East is belied and contradicted by the worsening situation in the area, especially so far as Palestinians are concerned. I gave a documented and discouraging picture of how the Oslo agreement and its aftermath have increased Palestinian poverty and unemployment; how the worst aspects of the Israeli occupation-now the longest military occupation of the twentieth century-have continued; how land expropriation and the expansion of settlements have gone on; and finally, how for Palestinians living under the 'limited autonomy' supposedly controlled by the Palestinian Authority life has gotten worse, freedom less, and prospects diminished. I laid the blame for this on the United States, which sponsors the injustices and inequities of the process; on Israel, which exploits Palestinian weakness to prolong its military occupation and settlement practices by other means; and on the Palestinian Authority, which has legalized the illegal, not to say preposterous, aspects of the 'peace process' and presses on with it weakly and incompetently, in spite of incontrovertible evidence that Israel and the United States remain unchanged in their hostility to Palestinian aspirations.
A period of discussion and questions followed, most of it dominated by two or three supporters of Israel, one of them an Israeli employee of Reuters. The irony here was that all of them attacked me personally, speaking about my lack of integrity, anti-Semitism, and so on, without ever saying a single thing that contradicted the picture I had just presented. Both the organizer of the seminar and myself tried to push past the storm of insults and slurs, asking that people dispute with me on the basis of contested facts or figures. None was forthcoming. My crime seemed to be that I opposed the peace process, even though it was also the case that what I said about it in fact was true. My opponents were in every case people who described themselves as supporters of Peace Now (i.e., liberal Jews) and hence of peace with Palestinians. I kept raising the question of military occupation, settlement policy, the annexation of Jerusalem, but I received no response-only more accusations that I had missed certain nuances and important distinctions.
I concluded from this that in some very profound way I had violated the accepted norms for Palestinian behavior after Oslo. For one, I persisted in bringing up embarrassing questions and troubling issues. We are now supposed to feel that peace is moving forward and to question anything about the 'peace process' is tantamount to being an ungrateful, treasonous wretch. For another, I spoke in terms of facts and figures, and I was unsparing in my criticism of all the parties to the peace process. But I found that I was expected to express gratitude and a general attitude of cheerfulness, which I had violated by complaining about concrete abuses. Lastly, I had had the nerve to speak about the situation neither as a supplicant nor as a subservient 'native." This was particularly annoying to one of the individuals, who had become accustomed to Palestinians regarding her as a superior 'expert' and foreign adviser. In other words Palestinians are obligated to see such people as somehow entitled to tell us what is good for us, for our own good. The precedent seems to derive from the PLO chairman, who has surrounded himself with foreign advisers and financial experts, all of whom aid him in his private investments and commercial undertakings.
Although all the other members of the audience soon tired of my opponents, and expressed agreement with my views, I realized that the nature of the encounter I had just had with proponents of the 'peace process' was the main thing that was wrong with that process: its total obliviousness to the interests of the Palestinian people, as well as its enhancement of Israel's position by propaganda and unstinting political pressure. Oslo gave Israelis and supporters of Israel a sense that the Palestinian problem had been solved, once and for all; it also gave liberals a sense of achievement, particularly as the 'peace' came under attack by the Likud and settler movement. And this, in turn, made it unacceptable for Palestinians to express anything except appreciation for what had been done for them by Oslo, Clinton, Rabin, and Peres-even though unemployment in Gaza had risen at times to 60 percent, and closure of the West Bank and Gaza had demonstrated that Israeli occupation practices remained unchanged. When I was asked for an alternative I said that the alternative had been there from the very beginning: end of occupation, removal of settlements, return of East Jerusalem, real self-determination and equality for Palestinians. I had no problem at all with the prospects of real peace and real coexistence and had been speaking about those for twenty years; what I, and most Palestinians, opposed was a phony peace and our continued inequality in regard to the Israelis, who are allowed sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination, whereas we are not.
Now that expropriations of Arab land in East Jerusalem are once again taking place-rather brazenly this time-I find myself puzzled as to why both the PLO and the Arab states allowed themselves to get in such an extraordinarily stupid position, that is, to sign peace agreements with Israel before even the most limited versions of Resolutions 242 and 338 had been complied with. After all, Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, shortly after which the expropriations and settlements were begun by successive Labor governments. In her recent book about the peace process (This Side of Peace) Hanan Ashrawi lifts the curtain on the mentality of those Palestinian leaders who were anxious to sign the Oslo accord with Israel before securing a satisfactory Israeli position on the settlements and Jerusalem. One of them told her, "We will sign now, then you [presumably he meant you inhabitants of the occupied territories] can negotiate the details of settlements and Jerusalem with the Israelis later." In other words, the attitude seems to have been that "we" would sign now, thereby giving up everything; thereafter "we" would hope that "you" would get something back later by being extremely clever.
Indeed, this quite bizarre notion seems to be at the core of the current flurry of Arab diplomatic activity concerning Jerusalem. Morocco, which heads the Arab League Jerusalem Committee, has made its peace with Israel; so too have the PLO, Jordan, and several other countries (unofficially), who have already welcomed or said they would welcome visits from Israeli leaders. While they have been so cordial with Israel, that country has continued its drive to increase the size of, and add new land to, annexed Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as Gaza settlements; the last now total about 40 percent of the 'autonomous' area, and in the West Bank and Jerusalem, confiscated land amounts to 75 percent of the whole, all of it earmarked for Jewish use exclusively. Ninety-six incidences of such acts have been recorded by Israel between October 1993 and the end of January 1995.
Why then the sudden call for emergency UN sessions, the complaints, the uproar—most of it verbal, none of it revealing the slightest amount of coordination and strategy? How could the Arab leaders, plus the United States, and Israel have persuaded the Palestinian leadership to sign Oslo and its subsequent phases without a word about guarantees on settlements, Jerusalem, and self-determination, except that these central issues, the very core of the Palestinian claim to self-determination, would be 'considered' at the final stage, when there would be nothing left to negotiate? Those are the questions that need to be answered now, as a matter of accountability and clear political and moral responsibility.
In the meantime, we would have to conclude that the great intellects that capitulated to Israeli pressure and were cajoled into believing that a big favor was being done them by 'recognition' are, and will continue to be, incapable of leading the battle to recover Palestinian rights. A child can see that. What puzzles me is how so many Palestinian intellectuals, businessmen, academics, and officials persist in the illusion that the peace process is good for them and their people, and likewise persist in giving loyalty and deference to a Palestinian Authority that at best leads its people completely astray and at worst simply enforces the Israeli occupation at the behest of Israeli leaders who have persuaded themselves and their supporters that this is a genuine 'peace process.' Corruption? Venality? Incompetence? Or is it moral idiocy, that state of convincing yourself and others that your interests are being advanced, even as you continue to live as a prisoner? No matter what clever strategies are now planned for the Security Council and Arab League, and no matter how high the rhetorical level rises, there is no avoiding the issue of how such a leadership can continue to lead after having abandoned its people and its history to so fraudulent a set of promises.
The first step in liberating the occupied territories is to determine that they are to be liberated. Just because Israel and the United States have decided that annexation and the peace process are irreversible is no reason to accept injustice. The first step therefore is to admit that such a process is indeed reversible and that in order to achieve it there has to be real mobilization and preparation. As for relying on Rabin and Clinton—trusting them, in the words of Arafat—would it now not be apparent after the U.S. Security Council veto, that far from being trustworthy, they have nothing but contempt for the Arabs? It is obvious to me, even though I must also say that I am quite certain that every Arab leader will now send the U.S. a private letter of apology, asking to be excused for having had the ill-grace to complain in the first place!
Al-Ahram Weekly, May 25, 1995
Excerpted from The End of the Peace Process by Edward W. Said. Copyright © 2001 by Edward W. Said. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.