The Rootless Cosmopolitan
In the course of these essays Said recounts checklists of Israeli abuses, a grim, depressing reminder of how Ariel Sharon's government is squeezing the lifeblood from the quarantined Palestinian communities: Abuses against civilians that were once regarded as criminal acts even in wartime are now accepted behavior by a government ostensibly at peace. In Said's account these abuses are not the accidental, unfortunate byproduct of the return to power of a belligerent, irredentist general, but rather the predictable--and, in Said's case, predicted--consequence of the Palestinians' engagement in the late, unlamented "peace process" itself.
For those of us who welcomed the Oslo process and watched hopefully as it developed over the course of the 1990s, Said's disenchanted critique is depressing. But in retrospect it is difficult to deny that he got it right and we were wrong. As imagined by the Israeli peace party and welcomed by many others--Palestinians included--the Oslo process was supposed to build confidence and trust between the two sides. Contentious issues--the governance of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the problem of the Jewish settlements--would be dealt with "later," in "final-status negotiations." Meanwhile, the PLO would gain experience and credibility in the administration of autonomous Palestinian territory, and Israelis would live in peace. Eventually, two states--one Jewish, one Palestinian--would live in stable proximity, their security underwritten by the international community.
This was the premise behind the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. But the whole thing was deeply flawed. As Said reminds us, there were not two "sides" to these negotiations. There was Israel, an established modern state with an awesome military apparatus (by some estimates the fourth-strongest in the world today), occupying land and people seized twenty-six years earlier in war. And there were the Palestinians, a dispersed, displaced, disinherited community with neither an army nor a territory of their own. There was an occupier and there were the occupied. In Said's view, the only leverage that the Palestinians had was their annoying facticity: They were there, they wouldn't go away and they wouldn't let the Israelis forget what they had done to them.
Having nothing to give up, the Palestinians had nothing to negotiate. To "deal" with the occupier, after all, is to surrender--or collaborate. That is why Said described the 1993 declaration as "a Palestinian Versailles" and why he resigned in anticipation from the Palestine National Council. If the Israelis needed something from the Palestinians, Said reasoned, then the things the Palestinians wanted--full sovereignty, a return to the 1967 frontiers, the right of return, a share of Jerusalem--should be on the table at the outset, not at some undetermined final stage. And then there was the question of Israel's "good faith."
When the initial declaration was signed in 1993 there were just 32,750 Jewish housing units in settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. By October 2001 there were 53,121--a 62 percent increase, with more to come. From 1992 to 1996, under the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the settler population of the West Bank grew by 48 percent, that of Gaza by 61 percent. To put it no more strongly, this steady Israeli takeover of Palestinian land and resources hardly conformed to the spirit of Oslo. (Article 31 of the Oslo II agreement, signed in 1995, explicitly states that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.")
Meanwhile, even as the PLO was authorized to administer the remaining Palestinian districts, Israel was constructing a network of "Jewish" roads crisscrossing those same regions and giving settlers and other Israelis exclusive access to far-flung housing units (and scarce aquifers) protected by permanent military installations. (This had the paradoxical consequence of segregating Jews and Arabs even as they became more economically interdependent: Israelis relying on cheap Palestinian labor, Palestinians dependent on Israel for jobs and access to markets.) The whole exercise was driven forward partly by an anachronistic Israeli conflation of land with security; partly by a post-'67 irredentist eschatology (with the Old Testament invoked as a sort of real estate contract with a partisan God); and partly by longstanding Zionist enthusiasm for territorial enlargement as an end in itself. From the Palestinian point of view the effect was to make the "Oslo process" an agonizing exercise in slow strangulation, with Gaza in particular transformed into a virtual prison under Palestinian warders, the Israeli army standing guard just outside the perimeter fence.