We mourn the loss of Edward Said, who passed away on the morning of Thursday, September 25, 2003.
Edward W. Said, the late University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, was for many years the magazine’s classical music critic as well as a contributing writer. Known both for his groundbreaking research in the field of comparative literature and his incisive political commentary, Said was one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States. His writing regularly appeared in the Guardian of London, Le Monde Diplomatique and the Arab-language daily al-Hayat, printed in every Arab capital in the world.
In 1948, Said and his family were dispossessed from Palestine and settled in Cairo. He came to the United States to attend college and lived in New York for many years. Because of his advocacy for Palestinian self-determination and his membership in the Palestine National Council, Said was not allowed to visit Palestine until several years ago.
Educated at Princeton and Harvard, Said lectured at more than 150 universities and colleges in the United States, Canada and Europe. His writing, translated into fourteen languages, includes ten books, among them Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978), a runner-up in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard, 1983); Blaming the Victims (Verso, 1988); Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993); Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1995); End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000); and, most recently, Power, Politics, and Culture (Pantheon).
Misreported and flawed from the start, the Oslo peace process has entered its terminal phase of violent confrontation, disproportionately massive Israeli repression, widespread Palestinian rebellion and great loss of life, mainly Palestinian. Ariel Sharon's September 28 visit to Haram al Sharif could not have occurred without Ehud Barak's concurrence; how else could Sharon have appeared there with at least a thousand soldiers guarding him? Barak's approval rating rose from 20 to 50 percent after the visit, and the stage seems set for a national unity government ready to be still more violent and repressive.
The portents of this disarray, however, were there from the 1993 start, as I duly noted in The Nation (September 20, 1993). Labor and Likud leaders alike made no secret of the fact that Oslo was designed to segregate the Palestinians in noncontiguous, economically unviable enclaves, surrounded by Israeli-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads punctuating and essentially violating the territories' integrity. Expropriations and house demolitions proceeded inexorably through the Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak administrations, along with the expansion and multiplication of settlements (200,000 Israeli Jews added to Jerusalem, 200,000 more in Gaza and the West Bank), military occupation continuing and every tiny step taken toward Palestinian sovereignty--including agreements to withdraw in minuscule, agreed-upon phases--stymied, delayed, canceled at Israel's will.
This method was politically and strategically absurd. Occupied East Jerusalem was placed out of bounds by a bellicose Israeli campaign to decree the intractably divided city off-limits to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and to claim it as Israel's "eternal, undivided capital." The 4 million Palestinian refugees--now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere--were told that they could forget about return or compensation. With his own corrupt and repressive regime supported by both Israel's Mossad and the CIA, Yasir Arafat continued to rely on US mediation, even though the US negotiating team was dominated by former Israeli lobby officials and a President whose ideas about the Middle East showed no understanding of the Arab-Islamic world. Compliant but isolated and unpopular Arab chiefs (especially Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) were humiliatingly compelled to toe the American line, thereby further diminishing their eroded credibility at home. Israel's priorities were always put first. No attempt was made to address the injustice done when the Palestinians were dispossessed in 1948.
Back of the peace process were two unchanging Israeli/American presuppositions, both of them derived from a startling incomprehension of reality. The first was that after enough punishment and beating, Palestinians would give up, accept the compromises Arafat did in fact accept and call the whole Palestinian cause off, thereafter excusing Israel for everything it has done. Thus, the "peace process" gave no considered attention to immense Palestinian losses of land and goods, or to the links between past dislocation and present statelessness, while as a nuclear power with a formidable military, Israel continued to claim the status of victim and demand restitution for genocidal anti-Semitism in Europe. There has still been no official acknowledgment of Israel's (by now amply documented) responsibility for the tragedy of 1948. But one can't force people to forget, especially when the daily reality is seen by all Arabs as reproducing the original injustice.
Second, after seven years of steadily worsening economic and social conditions for Palestinians everywhere, Israeli and US policy-makers persisted in trumpeting their successes, excluding the United Nations and other interested parties, bending the partisan media to their wills, distorting the actuality into ephemeral victories for "peace." With the entire Arab world up in arms over Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks demolishing Palestinian civilian buildings, with almost 100 fatalities and almost 2,000 wounded, including many children, and with Palestinian Israelis rising up against their treatment as third-class citizens, the misaligned and skewed status quo is falling apart. Isolated in the UN and unloved everywhere in the Arab world as Israel's unconditional champion, the United States and its lame-duck President have little to contribute.
Neither does the Arab and Israeli leadership, even though they are likely to cobble up another interim agreement. Extraordinary has been the virtual silence of the Zionist peace camp in the United States, Europe and Israel. The slaughter of Palestinian youths goes on while they back Israeli brutality or express disappointment at Palestinian ingratitude. Worst of all are the US media, cowed by the fearsome Israeli lobby, with commentators and anchors spinning distorted reports about "crossfire" and "Palestinian violence" that eliminate the fact that Israel is in military occupation and that Palestinians are fighting it, not "laying siege to Israel," as Madeleine Albright put it. While the United States celebrates the Serbian people's victory over Milosevic, Clinton and his aides refuse to see the Palestinian insurgency as the same kind of struggle against injustice.
My guess is that some of the new Palestinian intifada is directed at Arafat, who has led his people astray with phony promises and maintains a battery of corrupt officials holding down commercial monopolies even as they negotiate incompetently and weakly on his behalf. Sixty percent of the public budget is disbursed by Arafat to bureaucracy and security, only 2 percent to the infrastructure. Three years ago his own accountants admitted to an annual $400 million in disappeared funds. His international patrons accept this in the name of the "peace process," certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today.
An alternative peace plan and leadership is slowly emerging among leading Israeli, West Bank, Gaza and diaspora Palestinians, a thousand of whom have signed a set of declarations that have great popular support: no return to the Oslo framework; no compromise on the original UN Resolutions (242, 338 and 194) on the basis of which the Madrid Conference was convened in 1991; removal of all settlements and military roads; evacuation of all the territories annexed or occupied in 1967; boycott of Israeli goods and services. A new sense may actually be dawning that only a mass movement against Israeli apartheid (similar to South Africa's) will work. Certainly it is wrong for Barak and Albright to hold Arafat responsible for what he no longer fully controls. Rather than dismiss the new framework being proposed, Israel's supporters would be wise to remember that the question of Palestine concerns an entire people, not an aging and discredited leader. Besides, peace in Palestine/Israel can be made only between equals once the military occupation has ended. No Palestinian, not even Arafat, can really accept anything less.