| To make history happen
In the Indian media, Edward Said’s demise has brought forth deserved encomiums for a remarkable Renaissance-like personality of multiple talents who was also one of the world’s outstanding public intellectuals, never afraid of speaking the truth and exposing the lies, deceits and hypocrisies of the powerful and their hangers-on. Of course, given the times we live in, we can fully expect some pro-Hindutva and pro-Zionist voices to express their veiled or not-so-veiled contempt for Said.
This article will not aim to add to the encomiums that have already covered all facets of Said’s life. I will only seek to elucidate Edward Said’s vision of the Palestinian struggle, its goal, its strategy, its prospects. He was, without doubt, the single most important spokesperson (outside of the formal political leadership) for the Palestinian cause. No one was more effective in expounding the justice of this struggle nor anyone more accurate and penetrating in their criticism of the iniquitous behaviour of the United States of America and Israeli governments towards Palestinians and their attempts (abetted by house intellectuals and a largely supine Western media) to cover this up.
The loss from Said’s death is simply inestimable. From the Seventies, his tireless efforts in print, speech or through television appearances and documentary-making made him such a pre-eminent public pedagogue and spokesperson. After 1994, he had the courage (virtually alone at the beginning) to stand up and oppose the Oslo and then the Wye Accords and to expose them for what they always were — a sham and a disgrace to any genuine process of seeking a truly just and fair peace settlement. The Indian government, the overwhelming majority of Indian media commentators, and almost the whole of the strategic establishment still wish for the Palestinian issue to somehow go away.
Any peace settlement, as long as it lasts, is good enough. Hence the earlier refrain about the unfortunate collapse of the Oslo accords and today’s constant clamour about salvaging the utterly fraudulent US-backed “roadmap to peace”.
Said did more than simply demolish the case for the accords through his systematic and detailed analysis of their deceitful terms and extraordinarily limited concessions, and his descriptions of what the everyday brutal reality of occupation during the “peace process” meant to ordinary Palestinians. He also highlighted the disastrous strategic-political mistake made by Yasser Arafat in deciding that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Kuwait War, the only chance of getting a reasonably fair two-state settlement was by relying on the US to play the role of an honest broker willing to persuade the Israeli government to accept this “final solution”.
Instead, as Said was the first to point out, this farcical “peace process”, controlled by a US government that was never interested in playing fair, was meant to impose a final Bantustan-type solution. That is to say, effectively allowing substantial and formally sanctified usurpation by Israel of a great part of even the occupied territories, as well as ensuring through such a final settlement the permanently institutionalized military, strategic, economic and political subordination of Palestine (“limited sovereignty” dressed up as independent statehood) to Israel. Arafat cannot bring himself to acknowledge his fatal strategic mistake. Hence his continued attempts to restore the peace process with US help. Arafat could also never bring himself to fully betray the Palestinian cause when he realized that the only settlement on offer would have meant precisely this. That is why today, both the US and Israel have turned against him and sought an even more pliant Palestinian leadership. While Tel Aviv discusses whether it should assassinate Arafat, Washington asks it to avoid such talk publicly and merely vilifies Arafat.
Said not only criticized Arafat (while always respecting his earlier historic role as leader or symbol of Palestinians), he provided his own distinctive strategic vision. His own long-term goal had shifted from advocating the two-state solution to that of a bi-national unified territorial state with full and equal rights for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs — the end of Zionism rather than co-existence with it. What was more important was Said’s prescription for how either of these two goals could be achieved. To those who argued in the name of a so-called realism that the only alternative available was abandoning the search for either a two-state or bi-national type, and accepting a Bantustan in all but name, he presented a firm no. The final goal of a just peace must never be compromised upon, though the means to achieving it could certainly involve compromises.
Behind this insistence lay a deep understanding of the real meaning of political struggle far removed from the understandings of most strategic experts for whom politics is, above all, statecraft that must obey the golden rule of respecting the existing “relationship of forces” between various contenders. For Said, political struggle was ultimately a clash of wills not of arms or of economic strength in which one side seeks to impose its will on the other. If Palestinians retained the will to insist on a just peace then, in the long run, Israel (and the US) could be politically defeated as the experiences of Vietnam and the end of apartheid in South Africa showed.
What was required then was a different political-strategic perspective that no longer relied on either Israeli or US good intentions or behaviour but prioritized the building of a new, much more democratic and non-corrupt Palestinian leadership, not the mafia led by Arafat and others. To be truly democratic, such a leadership would have to establish political structures giving voice to representatives of the four million strong Palestinian diaspora outside the occupied territories. Second, it would have to give up the morally untenable and strategically counter-productive path of attacking Israeli civilians and even military confrontation, though the Israeli government would certainly continue with its institutionalized brutality, murder and violence against ordinary Palestinians since that was the only way to sustain its occupation. Three, while engagement with the US, Israeli, European and other governments was tactically necessarily, strategically the focus had to be on engaging, in a much more determined and sophisticated manner, the broader public in civil societies everywhere, but especially in the US, by playing the Palestinians’ greatest trump card. This has always been the moral strength and integrity of their case against the dishonest and increasingly threadbare pretence of Zionism that Israelis, not Palestinians, are the real victims.
Finally, this leadership’s main focus has to be on sustaining the morale and determination of Palestinians to continue resisting non-violently (and all the more effective for being peaceful) by building precisely those links that promote grassroots democracy, welfare and development for ordinary Palestinians everywhere.
The greatest tribute to Edward Said would be to recognize his wisdom by endorsing his concentration on the development of the internal moral-political resources of the Palestinians and simultaneously expanding international solidarity with Palestinians as the best way to change decisively the overall “relationship of forces” in their favour. For theirs is the last and longest running anti-colonial struggle of modern history. History is not on the side of the US and Israel. By internalizing this profound insight, the Palestinian leadership can be strongly optimistic of making history happen.