Birth and death of harmony

The End of the Peace Process
January 11, 2002

In this set of essays, Edward Said sets the scene for the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations and the Palestinian renewal of armed struggle. These articles, which originally appeared in a Cairo weekly and a London-based daily newspaper from May 1995 to January 1999, express a Palestinian-American intellectual's anger and frustration at a strategy of peace-making to which he was viscerally opposed.

The declaration of principles signed in Washington on September 13 1993 (the Oslo Accords) was made possible by an exchange of letters of September 9 1993. In them, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, renounced "the use of terrorism and other acts of violence" and committed himself to "assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators". In return, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, recognised "the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people" and agreed to "commence negotiations". Thus the failure to prevent "terrorism and other acts of violence" undermines the basis of peace negotiations.

In the accords, Israel and the PLO agreed to end their conflict, recognise each other's legitimate rights, to live in peaceful coexistence and "achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historical reconciliation". Israel undertook to transfer powers to a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip over a transitional five-year period. Negotiation of permanent-status issues - Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders and, implicitly, Palestinian statehood - was postponed to the third year of the accords.

In practice, the accords produced continuous friction in which violence and diplomacy were mingled in equal proportions. Both sides made fateful errors. Rabin did not explain that the implied outcome of the reconciliation was a Palestinian state and the dismantling of settlements. Had he put this to the Israeli public in a referendum at the outset, he would likely have won great popular support for the peace process. But he was killed in November 1995 by a Jewish fanatic, an event that tore apart Israeli society.

For his part, Arafat was unwilling or unable to take effective action against the rejectionist Hamas and Jihad Islami opposition. His failure to prevent the suicide bombings of 1995-96 alienated many Israelis from the Oslo process and helped restore the rightwing Likud to power. Under prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government spent the next three years reinforcing settlements and dragging its feet in the peace process, embittering and impoverishing the Palestinians.

Said condemns the Oslo process as hopelessly flawed, a fraudulent peace leading nowhere, "a protracted, disorderly, hypocritical and undignified surrender" of Palestinian rights. He rejects the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The philosophy of partition was proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937 in response to the so-called Arab Revolt and enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29 1947. Accepted at the time by the Jewish Agency representing the Jews of Palestine, partition was rejected by the Arab states and the Arab Higher Committee representing Palestinian Arabs. This rejection spawned the attack by five Arab armies against the newly declared state of Israel on May 15 1948 and the Palestinian catastrophe. Ever since, partition has remained the most reasonable basis for a settlement.

Said's case is that the Palestinians were "cheated and bullied" by the Israelis at Oslo into agreeing to Bantustan-type autonomy arrangements on discontinuous and minuscule pockets of territory. For "the dubious privileges of running municipal affairs", they agreed to leave Israeli settlements in place and committed themselves to a plan "without real timetables" that was "designed specifically to keep Palestinians under the perpetual domination of the Israelis". Arafat was locked in an iniquitous mechanism of humiliating servitude calculated to give him neither self-determination nor statehood.

For the Oslo sell-out, blame is ladled out generously. Among Said's culprits are the Clinton administration, a succession of Israeli governments and the Zionists. He is scathing about the Palestinian Authority, a failed state in the making under a morally bankrupt leader. Said writes of Arafat, with his "sycophants and outright crooks", running autonomy areas "like a Mafia territory", squandering the hundreds of millions of dollars in western aid. Nor does he spare the rod from a Palestinian society that has "lost the ability to discriminate between fact and fantasy"; an Arab world with its "sustained dictatorship, total corruption, and mediocrity"; and a prosperous Palestinian diaspora, "a class unique in the 20th century for its wastefulness and unproductivity".

But his special objects of contempt are those Israelis and Palestinians such as Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa) and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who were naive enough to believe that compromise between the two peoples and an end to war might be possible. For Israeli leaders such as Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, who put their lives and careers on the line in the struggle for peace, Said has only scorn. Said's heroes are the purist advocates of an all-or-nothing solution.

Said resents the charge that he is simply negative and denies that the critic has a duty to present an alternative. But in chapter 50, he revives the old proposal for a binational state in place of Israel incorporating the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. First put forward by Martin Buber and Judah Magnes in Arab-Jewish Unity (1947), this Swiss-style plan was rejected by the Palestinians and virtually disappeared from Jewish discourse after the first Palestine war of 1948. Fifty years of hostilities, expropriations, terrorism and propaganda later, the idea appears more quixotic than ever. In 1969 al Fatah, under Arafat's leadership, took up the idea of a democratic, progressive state but later abandoned it for a two-state solution.

For all Said's criticism of the Oslo process, it brought the Palestinians to within a hair's breadth of statehood. At the Camp David summit of July 2000, Arafat was offered a state, but on terms he refused to accept. He cast around for means to strengthen his bargaining position. Arafat played three cards: a popular uprising, armed struggle and a bid for international intervention. At first his gambit paid off. Europe and the Arab world rallied round, and in December 2000 Bill Clinton offered him a significantly better deal. But time had run out - Clinton and Barak were lame-duck leaders. In January 2001, George W. Bush became US president, and he proved unexpectedly sympathetic to Israel. In the February 2001 Israeli elections, a demoralised Barak government was replaced by a national unity government under Arafat's old enemy Ariel Sharon. Sharon would not negotiate under fire, trumping the armed struggle card. September 11 and its aftermath then cut the ground from under Arafat. Even his friends were no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to terrorism spawned in the Palestinian Authority.

A settlement based on a two-state solution still offers the best hope for Israelis and Palestinians, who need to get out of each other's lives. Occupation and settlement are not only anathema to Palestinians, they have also corroded the fabric of Israeli democracy and are a travesty of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Something like the Clinton plan of December 2000 would free both peoples from their plights. It envisaged a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the dismantling of isolated Jewish settlements, Palestinian control of traditionally Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif (the Dome of the Rock), and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees and their descendants with compensation from an international fund. As a result of Arafat's rejection of statehood and reversion to armed struggle, at a cost of more than 1,000 lives to date, such a consummation looks further off than ever.

Raymond Cohen is professor of international relations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After

Author - Edward Said
ISBN - 1 86207 292 2
Publisher - Granta Books
Price - £15.00
Pages - 345

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