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.