(Editor’s Note: This article by late Professor Edward Said was published in Al-Ahram Weekly On-line (1 – 7 October 1998 – Issue No.397). It is republished here due to the direct relevance between the topic discussed then and the current discussion regarding efforts by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to obtain a “non-member observer state” status at the United Nations.)
By Edward Said
For several weeks, Yasser Arafat and members of his Authority have been saying loudly that, on 4 May, 1999, Mr Arafat will declare a Palestinian state. This announcement first emerged as a threat to Israel, and specifically to Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been delaying agreement on a further deployment of Israeli forces from Palestinian territory. Israeli responses to the announcement have been uniformly hostile, and very threatening: do it, says Netanyahu to Arafat, and we will be harsh in our reaction. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side has been exactly specific, but this has not deterred either one from going on about a Palestinian state and an unpleasant Israeli counter-reaction. In any case, Arafat, it is said, now wants to announce his plans for a Palestinian state while he is at the United Nations, and perhaps even to Bill Clinton, who is still mired in the Monica Lewinsky mess and therefore not likely to be listening too closely or able to do very much to help. In addition, the Arabic press has been reporting that, during his numerous visits to both Arab and non-Arab countries, Arafat has been seeking foreign support for his project. By now, then, the notion that a Palestinian state will be declared on 4 May, 1999 by Arafat has acquired a momentum, if not exactly a life, of its own.
I say this with some irony because, at first glance, the notion of declaring a state for a second time (Algiers, November 1988 was the first) must strike the untutored spectator as inherently funny, since in both instances, except for about 60 per cent of Gaza, there is very little land for this state. There is some Palestinian control, without sovereignty — a major requirement for a state — on only three per cent of the West Bank, and no territorial continuity between the various spots of land that make up what is now called Area A. One likely Israel reaction might be to say that the Palestinian entity has to be in Gaza, which is already cut off from the West Bank, and more or less force Arafat to confine himself and, alas, Palestinian national aspirations, to Gaza. This would be a severe blow, no matter how much international support the declared state would have at the time. In addition, the new state would make little sense demographically, given that Palestinians in one area would be totally cut off from their compatriots in other areas.
Supporters of Arafat’s idea of declaring a state in spite of the concrete demographic and territorial problems say that the project itself would have the positive effect of stirring the Palestinian population into some sort of energy, thereby compensating for the dismal failure of the Oslo Accords on which Arafat and his increasingly small circle of supporters, advisers, and hangers-on have staked so much. There is a great deal of discouragement and lethargy in Palestine, and also elsewhere in the Arab world. So much has been written and proclaimed about the new era of peace, the benefits of peace, the economy of peace, etc., that with five years of non-peace, people are understandably disaffected, fed up with lies, fed up with Israeli arrogance, fed up, above all, with their own sense of powerlessness and failure. Master tactician and artist of survival though he is, Arafat, I believe, still thinks that he can move things along with this state idea of his and, in so doing, either avert an explosion against his faltering rule or divert attention away from it. There is always the danger that his plan may backfire but, again characteristically, he probably thinks he can deal with that when and if it happens. As for the institutions, machinery, governance of a real state, none of these are really in place. It is true that the Palestinian Authority has many functions of a state government — post office, birth certificates, security, municipal affairs, education and health — but it still far too dependent on Israel to do as states should be able to do. Thus, for instance, water is still under Israeli control, as is the use of land, and entrances and exits to the Territories. Any pressure applied by Israel on any of these can cripple the state and render it impotent. Surely no Palestinian government would want to be put in so harrowing a position.
The disadvantages of declaring a state seem to me far to outweigh the advantages. Most important, a state declared on the autonomous territories would definitively divide the Palestinian population and its cause more or less forever. Residents of Jerusalem, now annexed by Israel, can play no part, nor be, in the state. An equally undeserving fate awaits Palestinian citizens of Israel, who would also be excluded, as would Palestinians in the Diaspora, whose theoretical right of return would practically be annulled. Far from uniting Palestinians, therefore, the declaration of a Palestinian state would in fact divide them more than they have ever been before, rendering the notion of one Palestinian people more or less void. In whose interest is such a result? Certainly not the Palestinians’.
I have a strong suspicion that Arafat is using the declaration of a state as a way of covering himself with what looks like a gain even as he is about to accept the treacherous Israeli “offer” of nine per cent plus three per cent as a nature reserve under Israeli control. Arafat is a prisoner of both the Israelis and the US; he has no place to go, no corridor he can escape into, no excuse he can rely on. I fear that, under pressure, he will concede and accept the Israeli deal, using the declaration of a state as a way of compensating (as well as trying to fool) his people. Watch him carefully.
Another disadvantage which seems just as significant is that the Israeli idea of getting rid of Palestinians by separation will be achieved not by Israel but by the Palestinian leadership. This would be the final triumph of the desire for the Palestinian people’s disappearance by dispossession for which a century of Zionist planning and belligerence has always plotted: the elimination of the Palestinian presence as a national group on the territory of historical Palestine. The Zionists consider it to be the Land of Israel, reserved exclusively for Jews. On the other hand, we should remember that every idea of Palestinian self-determination since the ascendancy of the present PLO has envisaged and embodied an idea of non-discriminatory equality and sharing in Palestine. This was the notion of a secular democratic state and, later, the idea of two states living side by side in neighbourly harmony. These ideas were never accepted by the Israeli ruling majority, and Oslo, in my view, was a clever way for the Labour Party to create a series of Bantustans in which the Palestinians would be confined and dominated by Israel, at the same time hinting that a quasi-state for Palestinians would come into being. To Israelis, Rabin and Peres spoke openly about separation, not as providing Palestinians with the right to self-determination but as a way of marginalising and diminishing them, leaving the land basically to the more powerful Israelis. Separation in this perspective then becomes synonymous with apartheid, not with liberation. To declare a Palestinian state under such circumstances is essentially to accept the idea of separation as apartheid, not equality, and certainly not as self-determination. “Self-rule” is Netanyahu’s euphemism for it. Moreover, those who would argue that, for Palestinians, such a declared state would be the first step towards a real state, with true self-determination, are actually deluding themselves by thinking illogically. If by declaring that what, in effect, is a theoretical abridgment of true statehood is the first step towards the realisation of actual statehood, then one might as well hope to extract sunlight from a cucumber on the basis of the sun having entered the cucumber in the first place. This is an example not of serious, but of magical thought, something we have no need of now.
No, this hullabaloo about 4 May, 1999 is part of Arafat’s tried and true method for distracting us from the true difficulties we face as a people. He used to do the same thing before every National Council meeting, floating rumours about an upcoming date, then postponing, then announcing a new date three or four times, until people would greet the actual meeting itself with much delight and celebration. This time, however, the political drawbacks of his declared state project perform the additional function of obscuring the true imperative, which is first of all to unite Palestinians and, above all, to provide us with a new political vision, programme, leadership. If the last few years have proved one thing, it is the bankruptcy of the vision proclaimed by Oslo, and of the leadership that engineered the whole wretched thing. It left huge numbers of Palestinians unrepresented, impoverished and forgotten; it allowed Israel to expropriate more land in addition to consolidating its hold on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza settlements; it validated the notion of what can only be called petty Palestinian nationalism, which in reality was little more than a few worn-out slogans and the survival of the old PLO leadership. What is now needed is first of all a symbolic political event held outside Israeli and Palestinian Authority jurisdiction that will bring together all the relevant segments of the Palestinian population, a truly national meeting or conference. From such a meeting, new outlines for resistance and liberation would be announced, coordinating not just the efforts of people in the Occupied Territories, but also those Palestinians from Israel and the whole Diaspora. It is the members of this larger group (in fact the majority of Palestinians) that Arafat neither can nor is willing to try to address, since they have been left out of the deal he made with Israel and the US, and whose hostage he now is.
The only political vision worth holding on to is a secular bi-national one that transcends the ludicrous limitations of a little Palestinian state, declared for the second or third time, without much land or credibility, as well as the limitations that have been so essential to the Zionist form of apartheid imposed on us everywhere. I am not the only one to see our plight today as basically that of human beings deprived of the right to full citizenship. It is this that united us all as a people, whether in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Amman, Damascus, or Chicago. The present Palestinian leadership has neither comprehended our dilemma nor, obviously enough, furnished an answer to it. This is why we shouldn’t be too excited by Arafat’s rather juvenile enthusiasm for the prospects of what might or might not take place on 4 May, 1999. The real task, I think, is to be planning a real alternative to the nonsense at present being put about, that by declaring a state — somehow — we will actually get one — somehow. Typically, this silly slogan conceals the real difficulties in actually establishing a state, difficulties that can only be overcome by real work, real thought, the real unity and, above all, real representation of all (as opposed to a part) of the Palestinian people. Not unilateral, empty, repetitious slogans. It is an insult to the integrity of our people to keep on making up such make-believe “realities” and trying to pass them off as political substance. Arafat and his advisers should be ashamed of themselves for such banal tricks. They should stand aside so that a more serious and credible political process can replace their disastrous fumbling once and for all.
(Al-Ahram Weekly On-line – 1 – 7 October 1998. Issue No.397)