On ‘Lost Causes’ and the Future of Palestine

On ‘Lost Causes’ and the Future of Palestine

On ‘Lost Causes’ and the Future of Palestine

The appearance of Palestinian defeat is an optical illusion—one that hides the probability of eventual Israeli defeat.


Richard Falk, a Nation editorial-board member and professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, was the UN’s special rapporteur for occupied Palestine from 2008 to 2014. This article is adapted from his Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture, delivered at Columbia University on October 20, 2014.

Although there are many eloquent, courageous, inspiring and culturally creative Palestinians, none have managed to extend their influence as widely and deeply as Edward Said did, particularly during the post-Orientalism phase of his life, when he combined superb and seminal cultural criticism from a progressive standpoint with perceptive and influential commentary on the ups and downs of the Palestinian national struggle.

My main focus will be to reflect upon Edward’s fascinating essay “On Lost Causes,” which combines intriguing literary assessments with his complex understanding of the Palestinian ordeal and destiny. This essay was one of his last major interpretive contributions, being the published form of a Tanner Lecture given at the University of Utah in 1997. According to his friend and associate Andrew Rubin, Edward regarded it as the publication that satisfied him most in the final period of his life.

Part of my interest in this theme of “lost causes” derives from a rather tense encounter I had with the French ambassador to the United Nations at a private dinner at the end of my term as UN special rapporteur for occupied Palestine. Our host, who had invited a dozen or so diplomats to comment upon the Israel-Palestine conflict, started the ball rolling with a very provocative statement: “Let’s face it: the conflict is over, Israel has won, the Palestinians have been defeated, and there is nothing more to be done or said. I am not happy about this, but this is the reality. We should move on.” What follows can be seen as a more considered response to this diplomat’s stance of cynical realism: it is my insistence that Palestine is not a lost cause, and that even if it were a lost cause from the perspective of realism, a continued commitment to it is greatly preferable to defeatist resignation and indifference toward such a grossly unjust outcome of such an epic struggle.

My deeper conviction is that the appearance of Palestinian defeat is an optical illusion that hides the probability of eventual Israeli defeat—that while Israel is winning one war due to its military dominance and continuous establishment of “facts on the ground,” Palestine is winning what in the end is the more important war, the struggle for legitimacy, which is most likely to determine the political outcome. If we examine conflicts over the past fifty years involving struggles against foreign and especially colonial occupation, we come to the astonishing conclusion that in most cases, the side that was weaker militarily controlled the political outcome. The side with the greater perseverance and resilience, not the side that controlled the battlefield, won in the end.

As the US government should have learned in Vietnam, military superiority has lost most of its potency in politically and ethically oriented conflicts against foreign—especially Western—domination. The lesson was captured by the extraordinary ending of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, in which the seemingly defeated Algerian national liberation movement miraculously achieved victory over French colonialism. As George W. Bush discovered in Iraq, it is possible for the Western intervenor to win the first type of war easily, and yet go on to lose the vital legitimacy struggle that follows. “Mission accomplished” is acknowledged, many deaths later, as “Mission impossible.”

* * *

Some years ago, I lent emotional support to a Hawaiian native-rights movement and came to know its inspirational leader, Kekuni Blaisdell. Blaisdell, who was from a leading Hawaiian family, succeeded professionally as a medical doctor in the Westernized world of modern Hawaii, more or less ignoring his own background and the degree to which traditional Hawaii was a casualty of American colonizing ambitions. Awakening to his native past in midlife, Kekuni learned the Hawaiian language and its songs, dedicating himself to the small but determined independence movement and to the memory of the lost Hawaiian kingdom. Surely this was the adoption of a lost cause, a life choice in contradiction to that of the opportunist who joins what realists would identify as the winning side. Yet Kekuni became fulfilled in ways that far transcended his earlier professional success or the kind of life experience of Hawaiians who passively accepted the historical verdict of their defeat. Somehow, his luminous dedication generated a love and devotion that was quite unrelated to the awareness that his vision of a restored Hawaii seemed doomed.

In a similar vein, Edward in his essay on lost causes refers to the Japanese veneration of “noble failure” as a superior course of action in life. His prime literary example is Don Quixote, whose absurd mission to revive the chivalric way of life in Spain is also doomed to failure, but who achieves personal distinction by embodying in his life a redemptive vision. This faith in the unrealizable achieves a fulfilling repudiation of what history has brought to pass, even if the glorified past cannot be reclaimed.

Edward is careful to distinguish cultural tropes in the domain of literary imagination from the realities of political struggle. In the essay, he identifies a lost cause as one “associated in the mind and in practice with a hopeless cause: that is, something you support or believe in that can no longer be believed in except as something without hope of achievement.” He goes on to say, “The time for conviction and belief has passed, the cause no longer seems to contain any validity or promise, although it may once have possessed both.” At that point, he poses what he calls “the crucial question,” which is to decide whether such a judgment hinges on interpretation alone or is based on objective circumstances. In this respect, the lostness of a lost cause is itself problematized. Edward himself refers to the example of Hawaiian independence, observing that what seems lost at the moment may become attainable at some future time when circumstances change beyond our powers of anticipation, as they constantly do. Ironically, of course, this was the experience of the Zionist project, which would almost certainly have remained a lost cause without the drastically changed circumstances brought about by the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust.

But there exists a contrary view that effectively denies the contingency of experience and places its trust in the reliability of appearances, an attitude expressed by the French diplomat. Edward describes such an outlook as that of “a strict determinist about the survival only of powerful nations and peoples.” In that case, as he points out, “the cause of native rights in Hawaii, or Gypsies or Australian aborigines, is always necessarily a lost cause, something both predestined to lose out and, because of belief in the overall narrative of power, required to lose.”

Before turning to the present phase of the Palestinian struggle, an additional line of thinking suggested by the antirealism of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek seems relevant. In effect, they argue, it is only lost causes that possess the empowering potential to address the challenges confronting humanity. In this sense, abandoning the Enlightenment legacy of relying on the guidance of instrumental reason, Zizek argues for “faith in lost Causes, Causes that, from within the space of skeptical wisdom, cannot but appear as crazy.” It’s worth remembering an ironic quip common among early Zionist settlers: “You don’t have to be crazy to be a Zionist, but it helps.” The point is that a burning faith in the unrealizable creates the possibility, however remote, that what seems beyond reach will at some point be reached.

But why strike such a posture? Zizek’s response, which I share and which is very different from the focused craziness proposed by the early Zionists, is expressed as follows: “The problem, of course, is that, in a time of crisis and ruptures, skeptical empirical wisdom itself, constrained to the horizons of the dominant form of common sense, cannot provide the answers, so one must risk a Leap of Faith.” Put more simply, the realm of the feasible, which is the theater of everyday politics theorized as “the art of the possible,” cannot address the challenges confronting people existing in circumstances of oppression, occupation and servitude. From their perspective, a dedication to what seems impossible from a realistic viewpoint is, in truth, the only realism with emancipatory potential. It provides the only alternative to the sullen acceptance of the intolerable. In a global historical sense, this insight is most vividly demonstrated by the inability of the powers-that-be to solve the challenges of nuclear weapons and climate change, which imperil the future of human civilization and even the survival of our species.

In this regard, Zizek quotes approvingly the provocation of Samuel Beckett—“After one fails, one can go on and fail better”—which for Zizek contrasts with the prevailing posture of “indifference” toward the human condition that “drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” The courage to embark on a utopian project of the sort associated with revolutionary movements, despite the history of disillusionment and failure, contains what Zizek calls “a redemptive moment” because it displays the willingness to struggle and even die on behalf of a better human future. Without such a willingness, we humans seem doomed to extinction.

Since we can never know what the future holds, and since much that once seemed impossible has happened, no worthy cause is definitively lost. Related to this affirmation is the idea that dedication to a noble cause, whether viewed as lost or not, is itself individually and collectively redemptive. We should also realize that the history of struggle for freedom and justice, despite being obstructed by the brutal forces of reaction, needs to continue. Without such aspirations and struggle, the world and those of us in it are lost. Goethe expressed this thought in the patriarchal language of his day: “He who strives, him we may save.” This brings to mind Sisyphus, consigned to push a heavy boulder forever up the side of a mountain, knowing that near the top it will fall to the bottom, with the process repeating over and over. When Albert Camus says that we can imagine Sisyphus “happy” with this destiny, he is also conveying a pessimistic version of this insight—that the best we can hope for in life is to struggle for what is better, even if while doing so we know that failure is inevitable and hope irrelevant.

* * *

When Edward turns in the middle of his essay from literature to his own existential connection with the theme of lost causes, he asks two preliminary questions: “What if we try to grapple with lost causes in the public political world where efforts on behalf of causes actually take place? Is there the same ironized inevitability there, or do subjective hope and renewed effort make a lost cause something to be refused as defeatism?” Edward here poses in the abstract the crucial issue of whether what is noble in literature becomes ethically unacceptable in the lifeworld of political struggle. He personalizes this issue, saying: “Here I can do no better than to offer my personal experience as a politically active Palestinian as evidence, particularly as these have crystallized since the watershed Oslo agreement of September 1993.”

It is worth noting that 1993 was what I would call the second awakening of Edward Said in relation to the Palestinian national movement. The first is well-known: the impact of the 1967 war, moving Edward from immersion in his professional role as a prominent literary critic to an activist role as a leading public intellectual espousing the Palestinian cause. In other words, it was in the wake of what appeared to be the most humiliating political and military defeat for the Palestinians that Edward decided to devote his mind and heart to the struggle.

Less well-known is his 1993 turning point, when Edward’s mounting skepticism about the direction of the PLO’s leadership reached a climax in reaction to the Oslo accords, which most non-Palestinians at the time hailed as a breakthrough for peace. It was Edward’s judgment that Yasir Arafat and the PLO leadership, by agreeing to a diplomatic framework slanted heavily toward Israel, had effectively surrendered, thus accepting that their struggle had indeed become a “lost cause” in the falsely definitive sense. Edward resigned from the Palestinian National Council, pointedly refusing to walk down this path of defeatism. More than twenty years later, the principled wisdom of his position is finally being widely acknowledged.

To explain his different phases of engagement with the Palestinian cause, Edward contrasts the resurgent nationalism that occurred after the 1967 experience with the defeatist diplomacy leading up to and following from 1993. Indicting PLO defeatism, Edward observes that “it seemed neither appropriate nor really possible to see ourselves in terms of other dispossessed and forgotten peoples like the Armenians, American Indians, Tasmanians, Gypsies, and Australian aborigines.” Putting aside his controversial and mistaken presumption that these defeated peoples are “forgotten,” his point of contrast is sharp: “On the contrary, we modeled ourselves on the Vietnamese people, whose resistance to U.S. intervention seemed exactly what we should undertake.” Edward acknowledged the inspiration he received from the writings of Frantz Fanon and the exploits of Vietnam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. It is crucial to understand that the “we” in his phrasing is a reference to the Palestinian people of his persuasion, not to the leaders who represent Palestine on the global diplomatic stage.

From the perspective of “lost causes,” Edward’s choice of Fanon and Vietnam is illuminating. The Vietnamese were somehow able to turn their seemingly lost cause on the battlefield into a miracle of political victory. This capacity for resilience and steadfastness—what Palestinians call sumud—on the part of the peoples of the South during their struggle against Western colonial rule is a reality that the United States and Israel have yet to appreciate, as borne out by their failed interventions in the period since the 9/11 attacks (Israel in Gaza and Lebanon; the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria).

Edward was careful to put his commitment to the Palestinian lost cause in a global context: “We saw ourselves as a Third World people, subjected to colonialism and oppression, now undertaking our own self-liberation from domination as well as the liberation of our territory.” In a later passage, he faults the Palestinians for falling into the tactical and propaganda trap set by their adversaries of being perceived as “terrorists,” which he contends was never the true ethos of the movement. He insists that the Palestinian movement was and should remain secular and democratic in its essential ambition, and thus profoundly different from politics elsewhere in the region, which he considers postnationalist and oriented around some form of Islam. He believed that the Palestinian outlook was “a distinct advance over those of the Arab states, with their oligarchies, military dictatorships, brutal police regimes.” The question he confronted was whether, as a Palestinian, he should adopt a hopeful or defeatist view of what presented itself as a lost cause. In opting for the former, he was challenging the lostness of the Palestinian cause, while the PLO leadership, in opting for Oslo, was agreeing to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and its resulting humiliation of permanent subjugation in their own homeland.

* * *

Edward addresses the challenge of apparent defeat and the accompanying feelings of hopelessness, both in literature and in relation to the Palestinian situation, and gives a very different answer than my French ambassador. In effect, he turns away from this kind of worldly realism as irrelevant and affirms instead that the only true choice is between surrender and resistance. He chooses resistance—or, put differently, he declares a refusal to accept the unacceptable, however unfavorable the “facts on the ground.” In so doing, Edward inverts this sinister formula frequently invoked by Israel, one used to obtain Washington’s acceptance of the “realities” that trample upon Palestinians’ rights under international law.

To appreciate Edward’s rejection of Oslo, it is necessary to consider what was wrong about it from a Palestinian viewpoint. I would point to four features:

1. The fragmentation, under the Oslo II agreement of 1995, of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C, making territorial coherence untenable.

2. The idea that Palestinian goals could be achieved only on the basis of Israeli consent, despite the fact that in 1967 the Security Council had unanimously mandated withdrawal from the territory occupied during that war.

3. The designation of Washington as the permanent intermediary for negotiations, despite its partisan alignment with Israel, which was already in the driver’s seat from a diplomatic perspective.

4. Perhaps most important of all, the exclusion from the negotiations of international law and UN authority, which had been the trump in the Palestinian deck of cards.

International law is clearly on the side of the Palestinians regarding their main claims and grievances, including borders, refugees, settlements, water rights and the status of Jerusalem, as well as the day-to-day practices associated with the occupation. Without the inclusion of Palestinian rights under international law, diplomacy degenerates into a bargaining process, which ensures that power disparities will be embodied in any negotiated solution.

Palestinian objections to Israeli settlement expansion as unlawful were rebuffed by Washington as unhelpful obstructions to the peace process. Palestinian humiliation was vividly expressed in Arafat’s acceptance of Oslo’s 1993 Declaration of Principles, which did not even refer to Palestine’s inalienable right of self-determination.

George W. Bush acquiesced in Israel’s unlawful activities, validating them outside the negotiating framework in his letter to Ariel Sharon of April 2004, in which Bush agreed that any end to the conflict must include the incorporation of settlement blocs into Israeli territory. When she was Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton added to this hegemonic sanction of illegality by referring to the settlement phenomenon as “subsequent developments” that must be acknowledged by the Palestinians.

The unreasonableness of the Oslo approach as a means to achieve a just peace is accentuated by the PLO’s 1988 Declaration of Independence, which, by acknowledging the UN’s 1947 partition plan and subsequent UN resolutions, effectively accepted Israel’s existence within the 1967 borders. Such a bold unilateral initiative, supported by Edward upon its announcement, renounced the PLO’s earlier refusal to accept the existence of Israel in any form and exhibited a willingness to swallow a territorial arrangement that accorded the Palestinians only 22 percent of historic Palestine. As is well-known, this was less than half of what the UN had offered in its 1947 partition plan, which at the time seemed grossly unfair, given the relative size of the Jewish and Palestinian populations. The fact that such a unilateral diplomatic initiative by the Palestinians failed to yield any acknowledgment from Israel, much less a reciprocal gesture, raises doubts as to whether Israel was ever really interested in achieving a two-state solution.

These elements of the overall situation are descriptive of the defeatist period of the Palestinian leadership, which seemed ready to settle for arrangements that disregarded Palestinian rights under international law. There was considerable anxiety among Palestinian intellectuals during the 2000 Camp David talks that Arafat might make a deal that accepted the settlements and relinquished the rights of several million Palestinian refugees. In fact, the second intifada was commonly interpreted as a grassroots Palestinian warning to the Palestinian Authority leadership as well as a rebuff to Israel. There were further disquieting developments in the Oslo period, including massive settlement expansion; a refusal by Israel to respect the 2004 International Court of Justice findings calling for the dismantling of the separation wall; an apartheid structure of occupation in the West Bank; a process of incremental ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem; and a harsh regime of collective punishment imposed on Gaza, which in the course of the last six years has endured three Israeli campaigns of state terror. These attacks were unprecedented in locking the civilian population into a combat zone and disallowing even women and children to claim refugee status by crossing the border or seeking secure sanctuary within Gaza.

* * *

Yet these dispiriting realities are far from the whole story of Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian leadership may have taken the defeatist route, but Palestinians as a people have kept their faith, by and large, in the necessity of resistance and of not giving up their long quest for a just and sustainable peace.

We need to remember that Edward transferred his energies from the bankruptcy of top-down diplomacy to the empowering potential of bottom-up militancy. This kind of activism can be seen most dramatically in the first intifada, a mobilization of Palestinian resistance from December 1987 to the early 1990s that was overwhelmingly nonviolent, yet withheld all forms of cooperation with the occupier. It was reinforced by the second intifada of the early 2000s, which was also in part a populist reaction to Israeli policies but lacked the nonviolent discipline of the earlier uprising. In 2005, a joint appeal from 170 Palestinian civil-society organizations to launch a global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign represented a further shift in the direction of civil-society leadership and toward a movement of global solidarity that has been gaining momentum. This momentum was further accelerated by the moral outrage—especially strong in Western Europe—generated by this year’s fifty-one-day Israeli attack on Gaza.

What seemed a defining moment in 1993 has now been superseded by a cluster of events that created a new defining moment in 2014, which involves a reformulation of perceptions in relation to the struggle. In some ways, the situation from the Palestinian perspective has never seemed darker, undoubtedly making the cynical realist write-off of the conflict more prevalent. Consider the following developments:

§ In the latest direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any solution that would end the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The collapse of the talks last spring confirms the futility of the Oslo approach. This posture is reinforced by the latest readings of Israeli public opinion: the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs released a poll in October showing that three-quarters of Israel’s citizens oppose the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders (even with settlement blocs incorporated into Israel); oppose withdrawal from the Jordan Valley in a peace agreement even if international peacekeeping forces replace the Israeli army; and oppose the division of Jerusalem. This suggests that even if Israel’s government truly sought a peace agreement that allows a two-state solution, the Israeli public would repudiate it.

§ The Arab gulf countries were passive accomplices in Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, in the summer of 2014, which fit their own agenda calling for the destruction of any grassroots Islamist political actors in the region.

§ Israeli public opinion was, according to the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, 99 percent behind last summer’s Gaza campaign, in which Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, injured another 11,000 and traumatized the entire population. In Israel, there were high-level government and other public incitements to genocide, with numerous unrepudiated statements calling for the wholesale destruction of civilian society in Gaza. The vivid testimony given in September at the Russell Tribunal by Canadian-Israeli journalist David Sheen provides persuasive documentation of the incitement charges.

§ Congress remains as unconditionally committed to Israel as ever, though there have been some signs of discomfort at the White House, which seems to want to sustain the credibility of the Oslo approach—despite all the evidence that Israel uses these periodic negotiations for the purposes of delay and propaganda, even as Palestine loses time and territory.

Israel thus faces little diplomatic pressure to resolve the conflict by negotiations and has no incentive of its own to do so. For Palestine, there exists only a fragile unity between the PLO and Hamas, and a debilitating dependence on Israel and the United States for the funds needed to maintain order in the territories under their administrative control. Despite this, one of the most brilliant Palestinian analysts of the conflict, Ali Abunimah, writes these startling sentences at the very beginning his fine new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine: “The Palestinians are winning. This might seem like hubris or even insensitivity. After all, in so many ways things have never looked worse.”

We must ask what Abunimah means by “winning,” and why he’s hopeful. He is, in effect, telling my French diplomat to look deeper at the overall picture if he wants to understand the reality of the conflict. “It is not a matter of how long you look that matters,” he says, “but what you see.” What should we see?

There are a few factors to consider: the discrediting of Oslo, the growth of the global solidarity movement, the moves toward Palestinian political unity, and the recognition of Israeli criminality and American complicity as pressure grows on the Palestinian Authority to take its case to the International Criminal Court. In addition, there is growing evidence that Israel is more worried about what it calls “the delegitimation project” than about the threats posed by armed resistance.

What Abunimah sees that the realist’s blinkered vision misses are the psycho-political dimensions of conflict in our postcolonial world. These dimensions center on the fact that denial of a population’s inalienable right to self-determination and other elemental rights has a powerful mobilizing effect. Such a denial of rights creates a deep awareness of illegitimacy that is further heightened by Israel’s defiance of international law, UN authority and universal standards of morality. These factors strengthen the will of Palestinians to resist and create a climate that encourages more militant forms of global solidarity.

* * *

Let me end with two sets of conclusions:

1. The Palestinian struggle will remain a lost cause in the French sense so long as the Oslo approach continues, which reduces Palestinian representation to “moderate” forces, excludes Hamas and endows the United States with the role of mediator. Though the recent recognition of Palestinian statehood by Sweden, Britain, Spain and France was welcome, it was also ambiguous to the extent that these countries justified their decision as support for the “moderate” Palestinians who could revive direct negotiations for a two-state solution. In effect, the message being sent is: “Oslo is dead—long live Oslo.” If an agreement is to work, it must reflect the will of the Palestinian people, not their current unrepresentative leaders, and it must not remain locked in a two-state mantra that has become irrelevant.

2. The Palestinian struggle is more than ever a lost cause in Edward’s uplifting sense of being centered on a commitment to self-determination achieved by resistance, reinforced by a global solidarity movement. This Palestinian resistance has gained momentum in its latest phase by relying primarily on nonviolent tactics of increasing militancy and by rejecting the defeatist notion that the Palestinian Authority speaks for the people as a whole. This public consensus also rejects, by and large, the view that Hamas speaks for the people, despite its recent popularity even in secular circles due to its resilience in last summer’s assault on Gaza.

This second commitment to the Palestinian “lost cause” is premised on the realization that people throughout the world have demonstrated historical agency in relation to the right of self-determination, and especially in relation to European colonialism. Such a resolve also includes accepting what Edward so often stressed: that Palestinian rights should never be realized through a second dispossession, that of the Jewish presence in historic Palestine. In effect, this presupposes Palestinian acceptance of the core Zionist idea of a Jewish “homeland” while rejecting both the notion of a Jewish state and the maximalist Zionist view, currently being implemented, that such a state should include the whole of historic Palestine, including the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is a hopeful sign that the Palestinian civil-society consensus explicitly accepts a permanent Jewish presence in historic Palestine.

Let me finish, then, with a reaffirmation of the complex relationship between our limited knowledge, especially of the future, and our political and moral will, which has the irreducible freedom to create its own horizons. It is for this reason alone that it is empowering to join with Edward Said in declaring our defense of lost causes, in this instance that of the Palestinian people, who have endured an unspeakable ordeal of victimization for so long. As in South Africa, where whites were able to remain after the collapse of the apartheid regime, it will take a comparable political miracle to reach a just and sustainable peace in Palestine, one that upholds the equal dignity of both peoples. In this spirit, I end with the enigmatic plea of the poet W.H. Auden: “We who are about to die demand a miracle.”


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