Trying again and again

Edward W. Said


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 scant and even underestimate  their malevolent sloppiness.


in their all-purpose catchiness, their anti-historical bullying, and the

egotistical urgency of their manner 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.


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, Clinton proposes what in effect is a warmed-over Israeli intention to

perpetuate control over Palestinian lives and land for the foreseeable future.


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 old occupation, its 52 year old oppression and

dispossession of the entire Palestinian people, its countless brutalizations and

dehumanizations 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.


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 just happens

also 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.


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.


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?


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 which 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 that 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: thattoo is unalienable and un-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 Albanians’  right of return, and

then ask Palestinians to renounce theirs.


second point here is to recall that Israel, which continues with unremitting

obduracy 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 ruffianly  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 thirty  three years of spoliation and exploitation that have come

with the  ever-present military occupation.


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 recognizing

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?


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 will have sacrificed their lives and, almost as important,

their livelihoods for nought.


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  mobilize 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 incompetence  and uncertainty.


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 recognize 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, but 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

likeminded 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.


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.


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.

Copyright Edward W. Said, 2000, also appears in The DAWN Group of Newspapers,



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