Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
Issue No.516
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Trying again and again

By Edward Said

Edward SaidThe last-ditch American effort to make Yasser Arafat terminate his own people's sovereign existence bears the heavy imprint not only of the US-Israeli lobby but of Bill Clinton's political style. To say of Clinton's bridging proposals, as they have been euphemistically called, that they are a sort of fast food peace is to diminish and even underestimate their malevolent sloppiness. In their all-purpose catchiness, their anti-historical bullying, and the egotistical urgency of their manner, what they most resemble is Clinton at his desk, one hand holding the telephone to his ear, the other clutching at the pizza slice he munches away at, even as his various staffers, funders, fixers, cronies and golf-playing buddies mill around him giving (and getting) favours, loans, grants, deals, mortgages, gossip.

This is then scarcely a fitting end for a struggle that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure for well over a century. Put forward in a language that (speaking myself as a teacher of how language is used and abused) fairly reeks of a dismissive silliness combined with vagueness, what Clinton proposes in effect is a warmed-over Israeli intention to perpetuate control over Palestinian lives and land for the foreseeable future. The underlying premise is that Israel needs protection from Palestinians, not the other way round. And there's the flaw in the whole thing: that Israel is not only forgiven its 33-year occupation, its 52-year oppression and dispossession of the entire Palestinian people, its countless brutalisations and dehumanisations of the Palestinians individually and collectively, but is rewarded with such things as annexation of the best West Bank land, a long (and doubtless inexpensive) lease of the Jordan Valley, and the terminal annexation of most of East Jerusalem, plus early warning stations on Palestinian territories, plus control of all Palestinian borders (which are only to be with Israel, not with any other state), plus all the roads and water supply, plus the cancellation of all refugee rights of return and compensation except as Israel sees fit. As for the famous land swap by which Israel magnanimously gives up a little bit of the Negev desert for the choicest bits of the West Bank, Clinton overlooks the fact that that particular Negev area earmarked by Israel also just happens to have been used by it as a toxic waste dump! Besides, given the peculiar divisions cutting up East Jerusalem -- all of which is illegally annexed land anyway -- and the three (instead of four) cantons into which the West Bank territory ceded conditionally by Israel will be divided, all of what has been described as an American breakthrough proposal pretty much dissolves. What the Palestinians are left with are material sacrifices which make Israeli "concessions" look like child's play.

The sacrifices demanded by Clinton are of course a cancellation of the Palestinian right of return for refugees and, just as great, a Palestinian declaration of the end of the conflict with Israel. First of all, the right of return for refugees (the right to a secure life in a place of one's choice) is a right guaranteed not just by UN resolutions but by the Charter of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clinton's formula for getting round this little problem reveals the man's approach to the world: "I believe we need to adopt a formulation on the right of return that will make clear that there is no specific right of return to Israel itself but does not negate the aspiration of the Palestinian people to return to the area." To which area? Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, for example, can easily be described as belonging to "the area." Who does Clinton think he is fooling? So then, why purposely and transparently try to confuse Palestinians with the phrase "the area" if what is actually meant is not allowing them a right to return to the country from which they were in fact driven?

As Clinton well knows (he is a lawyer by training) there can be no negotiation at all when it comes to human rights; according to the very laws the US pretends to uphold when it bombs some defenceless country like Sudan or post-Gulf War Iraq, no one can therefore either modify or negate any of the major human rights. Moreover it is impossible, for example, to uphold rights against discrimination or against the right to work in some cases and not in others. Basic human rights are not elements of a menu, to be chosen or rejected at will: they are meant to have the stability of universal acceptance, especially by charter members of the UN. Granted, the implementation of rights is always a major problem, but that has nothing to do with the fact that as rights they exist whether or not they are implemented, and therefore cannot be abrogated, modified or, as Clinton seems to think, re-formulated.

Similarly, the right to choose one's place of residence as a refugee: that too is unalienable and non-negotiable. Neither Arafat, nor Clinton, nor certainly Barak has any right at all to tamper with the right, nor to attempt by crude bamboozling to "reformulate" it in a way that suits Israel or renounces it in any way. Why must Israel always be an exception and why must Palestinians always be required to accept things that no people have ever been asked to accept before them? It seems to me indecent for Clinton to have gone to war, dragging all of NATO with him and destroying Serbia in the process, on behalf of the Kosovo Albanian right of return, and then ask Palestinians to renounce theirs.

A second point here is to recall that Israel, which with unremitting obduracy continues to deny any responsibility for Palestinian dispossession, maintains an unchallenged Law of Return for any Jew anywhere. How it can continue to do so and with a kind of ruffian churlishness refuse even to discuss a similar Palestinian right defies logic, to say nothing of elementary fairness. There is also the matter of compensation, not only for the enormous losses of 1948, but for the 33 years of spoliation and exploitation that have come with the ever-present military occupation. Bill Clinton wants all that dropped, as if by not mentioning a word about reparations the whole subject would disappear. It seems condescending to tell Palestinians that Israel will mutter a few words about understanding or even recognising their suffering and get off without a single mention of responsibility. Who is that typically l950s-style propaganda formula supposed to placate? Israel, or the Jewish Agency?

But Arafat did indeed come to Washington in response to Clinton's summoning, and because he is who he is, Arafat will probably not refuse or accept outright. He will waffle, and manoeuvre, and come and go, will conditionally accept, as more Palestinians sacrifice their lives and, almost as important, their livelihoods for nought.

Over the past weeks I have tried in every way available to me to get Arafat for once in his long domination of Palestinian affairs to address his people honestly, directly, in a straightforward way. But he persists in silence. And his advisers and associates also flutter around, powerless to influence him or to come up with anything by way of alternatives. Yet again I want to say, we need a new kind of leadership, one that can mobilise and inspire the whole Palestinian nation; we have had enough of flying visits in and out of Cairo, Rabat and Washington, enough of lies and misleading rhetoric, enough of corruption and rank incompetence, enough of carrying on at the people's expense, enough of servility before the Americans, enough of stupid decisions, enough of criminal bungling and uncertainty. It is clear that no matter what happens now, the Palestinians will be blamed: unabashed Zionist prophets like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who has not one word of criticism for Israeli brutality and keeps demanding that Arabs must recognise his "organic" connection as a Jew to Palestine without ever acknowledging that that right was implemented in conquest and wholesale Palestinian dispossession, will upbraid Palestinians for wrecking the peace, and continue broadcasting his half-truths in the American media. Still, this is all to no avail. Whether he and his associates like it or not, Israel can only have peace when the Palestinian right is first acknowledged to have been violated, and when there is apology and remorse where there is now arrogance and rhetorical bluster.

Our first duty as Palestinians is to close this Oslo chapter as expeditiously as possible and return to our main task, which is to provide ourselves with a strategy of liberation that is clear in its goals and well defined in practice. For this we must at some point have the partnership of like-minded Israelis and Diaspora Jews who understand that you cannot have occupation and dispossession as well as peace with the Palestinian people. South African Apartheid was defeated only because blacks as well as whites fought it. That the PLO has long thought that it could make peace with Israel and somehow tolerate occupation is only one of its numerous strategic as well as tactical mistakes. A new generation is arising now that no longer respects the old taboos and will not tolerate the lamentable "flexibility" that has given Palestinian liberation the status of a question mark rather than that of a beacon of hope.

There are two contradictory realities on the ground on which Clinton's Washington talks will founder. One is that the energies released by the Intifada are not easily containable in any available form for the foreseeable future: Palestinian protest at what Oslo has wrought is a protest against all aspects of the status quo. The second reality is that, whether we like it or not, historical Palestine is now a bi-national reality suffering the devastation of Apartheid. That must end and an era of freedom for Arabs and Jews must soon begin. It falls to us to try now to provide the signposts for a new era. Otherwise it is easy to foresee years more of fruitless and costly struggle.

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