- The Question of Palestine by Edward Said
Routledge, 265 pp, £7.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0498 2
The Palestinian problem has been the subject of world-wide debate for more than a decade. Yet the issue is not well understood. The debate, for all its volume and intensity, has rarely managed to discard that bitter emotional prejudice which makes rational discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict, and especially its Palestinian dimension, virtually impossible. For this, Israelis and Palestinians are equally guilty, and their supporters abroad perhaps doubly so. There is no significant segment of Israeli society which accepts the legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for national self-determination; nor will Israelis concede that Zionism, however good it may have been for the Jews, has inflicted great suffering on the Arabs of Palestine and still continues to do so. Conversely, the Palestinians have so far been entirely unable to reconcile themselves to Zionism as a genuine movement of Jewish national liberation; nor is there an explicitly stated readiness on the part of the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel’s right to exist. While Egypt and Israel continue to make steady progress in the establishment of normal state-to-state relations, Palestinians and Israelis remain locked in enmity – a state of affairs that threatens all the other agreements which have been reached, particularly the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
In his new book Edward Said tries to move the discussion beyond the narrow and sterile polemicism of the past. In many respects his attempt is successful. His writing is prejudiced and bitter and at times downright misleading. Yet he is able to rise above that and deal seriously with political reality. He argues forcefully and persuasively for the recognition of Palestinian rights: but he understands that Israel is there to stay, that it is a society now deeply entrenched in the land, and that there is nothing that the Palestinians or anyone else can do to reverse history.
This is of special significance in view of the position he occupies within the structure of Palestinian leadership. He is a member of the Palestine National Council, the parliamentary body that oversees, and ultimately controls; all Palestinian agencies including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (which is recognised by all Palestinians as representing their true political aspirations). At the same time, he brings to his work the discipline of a scholar. He is currently Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and has written several books, among them Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, and the recent Orientalism in which he analyses ‘the remarkable tradition in the west of enmity towards Islam in particular and the orient in general’.
The Palestinians of whom Said writes number between three and a half million and four million. They are scattered throughout the world. About 650,000 of them are Israeli citizens living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Just over one million live on the West Bank and in Gaza under Israeli military occupation, and another million or so live in Jordan – a great many of them still in refugee camps. There are approximately 450,000 refugees in Lebanon and the rest are dispersed throughout the Arabian Gulf States, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran and, in considerably smaller numbers, Europe and North and South America. Dispersion on such a scale has effectively prevented the Palestinians from becoming a socially homogeneous group. The refugees, even those whose lives have been spent in the miserable conditions of the camps in Jordan or Lebanon, are forced in some way to find a place for themselves in the society around them. The more fortunate have gone to university, founded businesses, become professionals. ‘But,’ says Said, ‘the fact of loss ... created an authentic community set apart from the host society ... What all Palestinians refer to today as the Palestinian revolution is not the negative distinction of being unlike others, but a positive feeling of the whole Palestinian experience as a disaster to be remedied, of Palestinian identity as something understandable not only in terms of what we lost but as something we were forging – a liberation from nonentity, oppression and exile.’
The turning-point for the Palestinian Revolution came in 1967. The devastating defeat inflicted by Israel on the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the June war shattered any hopes the Palestinians may still have had in the efficacy of general Arab support for their cause. They finally realised that it was their conflict and could not be won by proxy armies or states. Moreover, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza during that war provided the Palestinians for the first time with a territorial focus for their struggle other than Israel itself. Between 1948 and 1967 the West Bank had been under Jordanian control while Gaza had been ruled by an oppressive Egyptian military government. The camps in Gaza, like those in Lebanon, nourished the most militant elements in Palestinian society: those who opposed any compromise whatsoever with Israel. Their aim was the physical destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement by an Arab Palestine in which Jews might have been allowed the status of a tolerated minority.
On the West Bank, however, a different process had been under way before 1967. There, to a far greater extent than anywhere else, the Palestinians were being integrated into the host society: they were becoming ‘Jordanised’. The ‘Jordanisation’ of the Palestinians came to an abrupt halt with the Israeli occupation, although certain links with Jordan were maintained and the majority of the inhabitants continued to carry Jordanian passports. As the occupation continued, the population reverted increasingly, and more assertively, to its former Palestinian identity, precisely because there was no chance of integration in the society. At the same time, the severance of the West Bank from Jordan made it possible for the Palestinians to demand a form of statehood without at the same time calling for the dismemberment of Israel. What they wanted was an end to occupation and the replacement of the Israeli military government by a Palestinian political authority.
In the early years of the occupation it may well have been possible for Israel to come to an understanding with the West Bank leadership on the basis of an autonomy plan not very different from the one which is now proposed by Israel and which, today, is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. But Israel, after the 1967 war, was opposed to any form of separate negotiations with the Palestinians. ‘There are no Palestinians,’ said Golda Meir in 1969, at a time when the local leadership was actively looking for ways of entering into a dialogue with Israel. Israel’s rejection of those overtures, and its insistence that the future of the territory could be negotiated only with Jordan, radically altered the view of West Bankers as to the kind of deal they were prepared to make.
Before long, support for the PLO – minimal on the West Bank in the early Seventies – became solid. Today the West Bank recognises no other leadership and there is no prospect of a change in that position. At the same time, the PLO itself has undergone a significant transformation, not least because of the addition to its ranks of the more ‘moderate’ West Bank constituency. The PLO’s early credo and the National Charter in which its philosophy and political programme are enshrined called for the liquidation of the Zionist presence in Palestine – an end to the state of Israel. Segments of the PLO continue to adhere to that goal, and the Organisation as such has resisted the call to repudiate its charter. But a new consensus has developed: there is a willingness to concede the existence of Israel as a political reality which has meant forgoing the ambition of establishing a a secular democratic state in all of Palestine – as called for in the charter – and accepting instead a ‘ministate’ on the West Bank and in Gaza. Said admits that such a compromise will leave most Palestinians with a sense of
deep haunting loss ... Yet we would have gained a kind of equal sovereignty in Palestine where in fact we had none ... Such a patrie would be the first and perhaps the most important step towards peace between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. For peace between neighbour states will mean common borders, regular exchange, mutual understanding. In time, who cannot suppose that the borders themselves will mean far less than the human contact taking place between people for whom differences animate more exchange rather than more hostility.
How is that first step to be achieved? Among Palestinians there is unanimous condemnation of the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that stems from them. They are seen as an attempt by Egypt, Israel and the United States, acting in concert, to trim down the question of Palestine and perhaps even to make it disappear altogether. In the Palestinian view, the Camp David route will only guarantee the continuation of conflict. According to Said, the Camp David agreements are based on the hope that power will be persuasive enough to break the Palestinian will to self-determination: ‘no matter how the fact is prettified with promises of modernisation, progress and American aid there can be no mitigating the essential bargain which is that, in return for compliance, Palestinians are being promised their continued national non-independence.’
The difficulty with this argument is that the Palestinians have nothing concrete to offer as an alternative to the route opted for by Sadat. It is not denied that a new and far more positive Palestinian view of Israel has emerged over the past several years. It is encouraging, but it is not enough to induce Israel to make real concessions. Nor does it help when Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, tells various American Congressmen and newspaper columnists that he is ready to recognise Israel and then promptly denies the report as soon as it is published, as has happened on a number of occasions. Here there is an important lesson to be learned from the Sadat initiative. For a number of years before his visit to Jerusalem, Sadat had hinted in various ways that Egypt was ready to make peace with Israel. But he always ducked the crucial – from Israel’s point of view – question: did ‘making peace’ mean normal relations or just an end to belligerency? Sadat sought assurances in advance that in return for peace Israel would withdraw completely from the occupied territories, but he refused to be specific about the kind of peace he was actually offering. In the end, he understood that, although recognition was his trump card, he had no alternative but to play it. When he did, he got what he wanted: total Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory occupied in 1967.
To be sure, Israel’s current proposals for autonomy on the West Bank and in Gaza are derisory and fail completely to come to grips with the issue of self-determination for the Palestinians. The Israeli plan, as it stands at present, would merely perpetuate the occupation under a new guise. But the Camp David accords, it must be remembered, were deliberately vague on the details of autonomy and on the powers of the self-governing authority which, under the agreement, is to replace the Israeli military government. These are issues for negotiation. It may be said that the Israeli point of view is well-known: that the Begin Government has no intention of conceding real self-determination to the Palestinians and that negotiations therefore are of no value. Maybe so. But who can really tell before negotiations begin? Successive Israeli governments vowed that certain areas of Sinai would never revert to Egyptian control. The former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan said on innumerable occasions after 1967 that Israel would rather retain the strategically vital Sharm el Sheikh and forgo peace than have peace without Sharm el Sheikh. In the event, Israel opted for peace without it.
The fact is that Sadat, from the very first day of his initiative, has been calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The American position is less clear, but as Said himself agrees, ‘Jimmy Carter is the first President to have spoken seriously, albeit rather abstractly, of the Palestinian people.’ It is well-known to the Palestinians that, on every single issue of major importance that is likely to arise in negotiations between them and the Israelis, both the American position and the Egyptian are far closer to the Palestinian stand than to Israel’s. If the Palestinians were to agree to join the negotiations, Israel would find itself in a minority of one and under serious pressure. But the Palestinians refuse to do so. The United States, they say, should declare for a Palestinian state in advance or, at the very least, recognise in advance the Palestinian right to self-determination in an unequivocal way. If that were done, says Said, the Palestinians would ‘formulate very concrete proposals on peace’. Surely an American move of that kind would rob the United States of the mediating leverage it now possesses and doom the negotiations before they can even begin?
The Palestinian case is a strong one and there is no reason for the Palestinians to fear negotiations. The Israeli Government continues to deny the Palestinian right to self-determination, but opposition to the government view within Israel, though still restricted to a minority, is far greater today than it was a year ago and far more substantial than it was before negotiations with Egypt began. As the peace process between Israel and Egypt develops, domestic pressure on the Israeli Government to come to terms with the Palestinians is bound to grow. But that pressure will ultimately be of little use unless the signals from the Palestinians become clearer.
Edward Said wrote his book in order to put before the American public a broadly representative Palestinian position. Certainly it is a position of which the American public, and the European public for that matter, needs to be informed. But Said is the first to admit that it is an error to assume, given the realities of the Palestinian experience, that their future can be secured by anyone other than themselves. ‘I do not believe,’ Said writes, ‘as President Anwar al-Sadat and his various supporters would have it, that 99 per cent of the cards are in US hands, nor do I think that they are mainly in Israel’s or the Arab States’ hands; the whole point – indeed what makes this book possible – is that there are Palestinian hands, so to speak, and that they play an active role in determining Palestinian aspirations, political struggles and achievements as well as setbacks.’
Does it not then follow that, in order to take advantage of the evident mobility in Israeli thinking and of their own world-wide support, the Palestinians must themselves find a way of entering the negotiations? At worst, Israel will stand firm and defy all the pressures, in which case the negotiations will fail. But there is also the very real possibility that a Palestinian initiative as bold as Sadat’s could galvanise Israeli opinion and compel the Government to make vital concessions.