The Rootless Cosmopolitan
What grounds did Edward Said have for his faith in a single-state solution, a nonexclusive, secular, democratic alternative to the present impasse? In the first place, the status quo is awful and getting worse: two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar: What, after all, is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed "homeland" to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbor.
In the second place, something fundamental has changed in the Palestinian condition. For four decades millions of Palestinian Arabs--in Israel, in the occupied territories, in refugee camps across the Arab world and in exile everywhere--had been all but invisible. Their very existence was long denied by Israeli politicians; their memory of expulsion had been removed from the official record and passed unmentioned in history books; the record of their homes, their villages and their land was expunged from the very soil itself. That, as Said noted, was why he kept on telling the same story: "There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear." And yet "it is very hard to espouse for five decades, a continually losing cause." It was as though Palestinians had no existence except when someone committed a terrorist atrocity--at which point that is all they were, their provenance uncertain, their violence inexplicable.
That is why the "right of return" had so central a place in all Palestinian demands--not because any serious person supposed that Israel could take "back" millions of refugees and their descendants, but from the deeply felt need for acknowledgment: a recognition that the initial expulsion took place, that a primordial wrong was committed. That is what so annoyed Said about Oslo: It seemed to excuse or forgive the Israelis for the occupation and everything else. But, as he wrote in Al-Ahram in March 2002, "Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand [my emphasis] that it needs to atone for what it did." Attention must be paid.
But attention, of course, is now being paid. An overwhelming majority of world opinion outside the United States sees the Palestinian tragedy today much as the Palestinians themselves see it. They are the natives of Israel, an indigenous community excluded from nationhood in its own homeland: dispossessed and expelled, illegally expropriated, confined to "bantustans," denied many fundamental rights and exposed on a daily basis to injustice and violence. Today there is no longer the slightest pretense by well-informed Israelis that the Arabs left in 1948 of their own free will or at the behest of foreign despots, as we were once taught. Benny Morris, one of the leading Israeli scholars on the subject, recently reminded readers of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz that Israeli soldiers did not merely expel Palestinians in 1948-49, in an early, incomplete attempt at ethnic cleansing; they committed war crimes along the way, including the rape and murder of women and children.
Of course, Morris notoriously sees nothing wrong in this record--he treats it as the collateral damage that accompanies state-building. ("I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes," he told Ha'aretz. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.") But this brings us to the third ground for thinking Said may be right about the chances for a single state. Just as the Palestinian cause has begun to find favor in public opinion, and is gaining the moral upper hand, so Israel's international standing has precipitately collapsed. For many years the insuperable problem for Palestinians was that they were being expelled, colonized, occupied and generally mistreated not by French colons or Dutch Afrikaners but, in Said's words, by the Jewish citizens of Israel, "remnants of the Nazi Holocaust with a tragic history of genocide and persecution."
The victim of victims is in an impossible situation--not made any better, as Said pointed out, by the Arab propensity to squeeze out from under the shadow of the Holocaust by minimizing or even denying it. But when it comes to mistreating others, even victims don't get a free pass forever. The charge that Poles often persecuted Jews before, during and after World War II can no longer be satisfactorily deflected by invoking Hitler's 3 million Polish victims. Mutatis mutandis, the same now applies to Israel. Until the military victory of 1967, and even for some years afterward, the dominant international image of Israel was the one presented by its left Zionist founders and their many admirers in Europe and elsewhere: a courageous little country surrounded by enemies, where the desert had been made to bloom and the indigenous population airbrushed from the picture.