A Reply to Edward Said's "Thinking Ahead"

By Meir Amor | 2002-07-01 12:00:00

In early April 2002, while Israeli tanks were besieging millions of Palestinians and imprisoning the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah, I read Edward Said's "Thinking Ahead: After Survival, What Happens?"1 As usual I found Said's analysis politically incisive, informative, fair, and hopeful. However, the article kept bothering me. It kept demanding a re-consideration. Something was missing and I could not put my finger on what that was. My uneasiness was somehow alleviated after reading Jonathan Kuttab's and Mubarak Awad's call for a future nonviolent resistance in Palestine (May 8, 2002)2 and a courageous speech given to the UN Security Council on May 7 by Terry Greenblatt, the director of Bat Shalom, an Israeli feminist peace organization.3 My problem with Said's article became clearer. Said was not "thinking ahead" but "thinking present." He was not wrong; he was only current.

In "Thinking Ahead" Said elaborates what he thinks should be the Palestinians' next steps in addressing the Middle East conflict. Though he argues that Israel's "all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people" still receives US backing, that America's "war on terrorism" has taken over the world's agenda, that the US media destructively accepts the Israeli line, and that the Arab world's response is fragmented, there are, he says, apparent cracks in the American armor defending Israel. If such people as the renowned and retired politician Zbigniew Brzezinski are saying that Israel is becoming a supremacist country comparable to apartheid South Africa, this means that many more Americans are becoming disenchanted with their "Israeli ward." A growing number of Americans are recognizing that an expansionist Israel is a liability. However - and notwithstanding the "cracks" in the armor - the American shield still supports Sharon's homicidal approach. Said argues that Sharon is incapable of understanding the complexity of the conflict, that Sharon's only preoccupation is to destroy the Palestinian people. But "Palestinians will not go away." And Sharon, concludes Said, "has no plan."

Said's Suggestions

Said speaks to "us" and refers to "we." In the last analysis, he argues, Sharon "is Israel's problem to deal with." "We" must go on. And the world is slowly moving in our direction: Israel is becoming analogous to South Africa. So Said's question is: What can we rationally learn about the present crisis that we need to include in our plans for the future?

He has four such suggestions. First, Palestinians should acknowledge that the Palestinian Question has become a moral issue of world importance; Palestinians have a just cause and therefore captured the higher moral ground. Second, Palestinians must "organize opinion," especially in the United States and Western Europe. That means that the right people, equipped with accurate ideas and the necessary sophistication, should be at hand to provide counter images and narratives to the Israeli image-producing machine. Third, Palestinians must study and come to understand the only superpower in the world; Palestin-ians must learn America's currents, counter-currents and under-currents. America is not monolithic. America, being the main arena of battle outside of Palestine, receives most of Said's attention in "Thinking Ahead."

He also mentions nonviolent resistance as the unexplored venue; Said points out the need to talk directly to Israelis; he alludes to the need to address exclusion and belligerency with mutual respect and coexistence. His fourth suggestion is that Palestinians should learn that the most important lesson is "our" survival. Despite Israelis such as Sharon, Palestinians have survived. Said's conclusion is: Our society has survived all attempts to kill it and this is the kernel of the legacy we leave to the next generations.

Shape American Opinion

All these points are significant. However, Edward Said has no suggestions on how to do away with the conflict. His analysis is focused on the campaign to shape opinions, especially in the United States. It is a public relations and an American-centered analysis. It seems fair to conclude, despite what Said wrote in this article, that Palestinians' and Israelis' actions in the region itself are not as weighty as American politicians and American public opinion.

It is politically reasonable to surmise that no one in his/her right mind would contest America's centrality. But American policy being what it is - a so-called "pro-Israel" stand which in fact means "pro-American interests in the Middle East" and against "a democratic Middle East" - our perception of agency is challenged. What, for example, can people in the region do that is not constrained by the US government interests in the region? Here, Said's article has little to say in terms of a future productive orientation. He suggested very little for people in and of the region to do. In fact, he hardly acknowledges a huge nonviolent and peace-creating effort that is going on right now in the region.

Said makes three crucial points. First, Palestinians are there to stay. Second, Sharon has nothing to offer in terms of peace. Third, a different method of engaging the conflict is mentioned, though not elaborated. I shall elaborate these three points in a reversed order.

Said argues that the way to fight Israeli exclusivism is by developing mutual respect and coexistence. However, he is silent about the actual implementation of this method of engagement and resistance. There is a huge peaceful, nonviolent resistance effort against Israeli occupation and oppression. This should be recognized. It is a political mistake to disregard this movement. If, as Said suggests, nonviolent resistance is not being adequately explored, if, in addition, there is a need for Palestinians to talk directly to Israelis, if the method should be to counter exclusion and belligerency with mutual respect and coexistence, why, one may ask, is Said's focus the United States? Why do such nonviolent resistance, direct talk, and mutual respect not constitute an integral component of his "thinking ahead"?

The implicit logic of Said's analysis means disconnection between Israelis and Palestinians. It also means that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians defies reason and Middle Eastern history. This is so because in his "Thinking Ahead" article the force determining the conflict's path seems to be located in the United States. But this is not true. In this respect, Said's analysis is similar to Noam Chomsky's grim prognosis in his latest article "The Solution is the Problem" and Amos Elon's "No Exit" analysis.4 Said and Chomsky both argue that the most important factors concerning the Middle East are determined in the White House, in the Pentagon,or the offices of corporate (oil) power, in the Jewish lobby and in the offices of the Secretary of State. The pace, phase, and fate of the conflict cannot be determined in the crowded streets of Hebron or Gaza, nor in the Israeli-Jewish settlements on the barren hills of the West Bank, nor in people's efforts on the ground, whether in tanks or in uniforms, whether carrying guns or explosive leather belts, whether driving cars in convoys of food to besieged Palestinian cities, whether preaching death and destruction in synagogues or mosques. All such varied activities are portrayed as less significant than those in the American arena.

Well, I question these presuppositions. I question them because such assumptions render important new facets of the conflict inconsequential. They render refusal, civil disobedience, and nonviolent resistance of Israelis and Palestinians as less crucial than the "opinions" of Americans officials, experts, or lay persons. Such assumptions also disregard fundamental aspects of the Palestinian Israeli reality: its geographical proximity and the intimate association between Israelis and Palestinians.

Is There A Plan?

For many, the incessant bloodshed in Israel and Palestine defies comprehension. Is there a plan to this conflict? To watch the news is to see endless processions of violence, humiliation, and human right abuses.

Confronted by these intractable realities, one tries to make sense of it by heeding the political analysis of well informed people. Even so, the conflict seems to go nowhere; it seems to be a conflict between two ethno-national groups who regressed into primordial tribalism rituals of mutual revenge and slaughter. Many think that the conflict cannot get any worse. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have its own internal logic that a stranger cannot fathom; a logic that sets it in motion despite and not because of the people involved in it. The dynamics seem "bigger than life and history." However, the reality is that the conflict is rooted in the struggle over land. And Said is the last person who is not aware of it.

Several important aspects are left unarticulated by Said. First, the conflict does go somewhere: right wing Israeli-Jews want a greater Israel without Palestinians. They reject peace because, as they argue, they are against a "three Palestinian states solution" in Israel, in the West Bank and in Jordan. Violence seems to be their preferred method of achieving an Israel free from Palestin-ians. Therefore, second, the conflict can get worse; it can deteriorate into a general war between Israel and Arab countries and to expulsion and/or genocide with regard to the Palestinians. Third, it is true that the internal logic of the conflict is largely shaped by external politics.

However, these external factors provide the conflict's context, not its full content. Four aspects of that context are most crucial: America's oil interests, Jewish diaspora politics, Christian (Western) guilt, and the growing power of the Christian fundamentalist right.

American oil interests are compatible with high levels of regional instability and localized violence and the maintenance of undemocratic regimes. Demo-cratic Arab regimes, including a democratic Palestinian state, are beyond consideration. The United States government opposes democracy in oil-producing countries. Second, despite its fiery rhetoric, Jewish diaspora politics has little to do with the well-being of Israelis and surely of Palestinians. It may be a powerful lobby in the United States, but that tail cannot wag the super-powerful United States. Third, as a result of the last Intifada we are witnessing a Europe emerging from a Middle East policy shaped by feeling of guilt over the Holocaust. A major question still undecided is whether this awakening will be converted into a constructive European involvement for peace in the Middle East or will descend into a politics of exclusion by the racist new right.

These important factors constitute external ingredients. Internal dynamics are rooted, literally and symbolically, in Middle Eastern soil and within the Israeli and Palestinian publics. So: Sharon has a general plan; the conflict can get worse; and the conflict has internal as well as external factors fueling it. Edward Said's "Thinking Ahead" article leaves crucially dangerous developments out of consideration and disregards significant options for peaceful actions that might be the only alternatives to counter these ominous developments.

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is a personalized conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians who have quite an intimate acquaintance with each other. This intimacy is rooted in the geographical proximity of Israeli-Jews and Palestinians. This material nearness contradicts the political effort to segregate "Jews" and "Arabs." Separ-ation is an artificial political device designed to divide these groups. War, expropriation, incursions, suicide bombings and "final solution" logics are providing such an artificial curtain. However, those who live in Israel and Palestine know that on the ground these peoples are inseparable. Israeli Jews and Palestinians live in such proximity that their mutual gaze is constantly felt by all.

Palestinians are there to stay, but so are Israeli Jews. Belligerency almost succeeds in obscuring this reality by creating an artificial separation. However, everyday reality joins these two peoples. Few, on either side, are fully ready to acknowledge this simple reality - least of all the right wing politicians on each side, who argue for separation between the two peoples. Their future plans are unrealistic. The Israeli/Palestinian reality is one of coexistence and sharing. In our common history this coexistence has been imposed and the sharing has been distorted by Jewish privilege and the oppression of the Palestinians. Forced coexistence, oppression, expropriation and inequity are perpetuating the present violence.

However, a growing number of Israeli Jews define their well-being to include the well-being of Palestinians. A growing number of Palestinians argue that the conflict has reached the end of "either/or" logic. Some even argue that Israelis and Palestinians must engage common coexistence head on. As Salim Shawmreha says - and Salim is a person whose home was already demolished three times by Israeli government - "we need to come up with a 'win-win' strategy."

Win-win Strategies

We need a strategy that will define pro-Israel interests as pro-Palestine and vice versa. This insight evades many, but not everyone. Least oblivious of all are those people who struggle every day against the cruelties of the conflict - the radical peace activists and movements within Israel and Palestine. These peace groups claim that the perpetuation of separation is the perpetuation of the conflict; that cooperation and solidarity must be the root method of peaceful coexistence and trust building; that nonviolence is the only method that can build such trust; and that belligerency is the tool to enhance war, to marginalize the fundamental fact of coexistence, to deny reality, and to frustrate the development of genuine democracy.

A few significant developments have occurred recently on the Israeli Jewish side. First, the movement of selective refusal gathered momentum with the refusal of hundreds of reservists and young soldiers to serve in the occupied territories as military oppressors of the Palestinians. Second, several peace movements such as New Profile, Women in Black, and Bat Shalom are explicitly adopting a feminist approach to the conflict, criticizing the male, military-centered society. The effort toward building a civil society in Israeli society and politics has never been so vigorous. Third, several peace groups constantly demonstrate against Israeli government policies and courageously defend Palestinians. Finally, there are growing solidarity movements with Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. These trends are already exercising a significant influence in Israel and Palestine. Jews and Palestinians in the diaspora have to recognize these developments and integrate them within their own efforts for peace.

Meir Amor is a professor of sociology at Concordia University.

1 Edward Said. "Thinking Ahead: After Survival, What Happens?"http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2002/580/op2.htm

2 http://www.rapprochement.org

3 http://www.bathsalom.org

4 Chomsky Noam. "The problem is the solution." The Guardian. May 10, 2002; Elon Amos "No Exit". The New York Review of Books, May 23, 2002.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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