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Edward Said: Arafat's Gamble

Edward Said: Arafat's Gamble

Edward Said's Article in _The Guardian_ on Arafat's Gamble


Hacked out in back rooms, the Palestinian peace deal smacks of the PLO's exhaustion and Israel's shrewdness. Can it work?


The "historical breakthrough" announced by the PLO and the Israeli government is basically a joint decision to signal a new phase of reconciliation between two enemies; but it leaves Palestinians very much the subordinates, with Israel still in charge of East Jerusalem, settlements, sovereignty, and the economy. Though I still believe in a two-state solution peacefully arrived at, the suddenly proposed peace plan raises many questions.

The plan is unclear in its details: no one seems fully to grasp all its broad outlines. Israel and the PLO will recognise each other. Israel will allow "limited autonomy" and "early empowerment" for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, a small West Bank town 90 kilometres away. Yasser Arafat is reported to be allowed a visit but not residence; a few hundred members of the Palestine Liberation Army, at present in Jordan, will be permitted to handle internal security, ie police work. Municipal oversight of health and sanitation, as well as education, postal service, and tourism will be covered by Palestinians.

The Israeli army will reposition itself away from population centres but will not withdraw for a while. Israel will control the land, water, overall security and foreign affairs in these "autonomous" areas. For the undefined future, Israel will dominate the West Bank, including the corridor between Gaza and Jericho, the Allenby bridge to Jordan and almost all the water and land, a good percentage of which it has already taken. The question remains, how much land is Israel in fact going to cede for peace?

There has been much talk of vast sums coming for development: one prominent Arab daily reported that Arafat was bringing $ 2.7 billion to the deal. The West Bank is supposed to get an additional $ 800 million. The Scandinavian governments are said to have pledged considerable amounts for West Bank and Gaza development; Arab governments and the US are expected to be asked for money, although given the unfulfilled promises of the past, Palestinians are justifiably sceptical.

The PLO has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same handful of people still in command. PLO offices abroad - all of them the result of years of costly struggle whereby the Palestinian people earned the right to represent themselves - are being closed, sold off, left to neglect. For the more than 50 per cent of the Palestinian people not resident in the Occupied Territories - 350,000 stateless refugees in Lebanon, twice that number in Syria, many more elsewhere - the plan may be the final dispossession. Their national rights as people made refugees in 1948, solemnly confirmed and reconfirmed for years by the UN, the PLO, the Arab governments, indeed most of the world, now seem to have been annulled.

All secret deals between a very strong and a very weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the latter. Yes, there are still lots of details to be negotiated, as there are many imponderables to be made clear, and even some hopes either to be fulfilled or dashed. Still, the deal before us smacks of the PLO leadership's exhaustion and isolation, and of Israel's shrewdness. Many Palestinians are asking themselves why, after years of concessions, we should be conceding once again to Israel and the US in return for promises and vague improvements in the occupation that won't all occur until "final status" talks three-to-five years hence, and perhaps not then.

We have not even had an explicit agreement from Israel (which has yet to admit that it is an occupying power) to end the occupation, with its maze of laws and punitive apparatus. Nothing is said about the 13,000 political prisoners who remain in Israeli jails. We must put into whatever is going to be signed (no one is sure by whom) that Palestinians have a right to freedom and equality and will concede nothing from that right. Can the Israeli army march in at will? Who decides and when? After all, limited "self-rule" is not something around which to mobilise or give long-term hope to people. Above all, Palestinians now must have the widest possible say in their future as it is largely about to be settled, perhaps irrevocably and unwisely. It is disturbing that the National Council has not been called into session, and that the appalling disarray induced by Arafat's recent methods has not been addressed.

Two weeks ago the only really independent members of the PLO executive committee, Mahmoud Darwish and Shafiq al-Hout, resigned in protest; a few more are said to be considering the move. Hout said that Arafat had become an autocrat whose personal handling of Palestinian finances was a disaster, and worse, accountable to no one. I count no more than a handful of people, including Arafat who, with scant legal background or experience of ordinary civil life, holed up in Tunis, have hatched decisions affecting almost six million people. There has been no consultation to speak of, and no coordination with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In the territories, the occupation has been getting worse, and this after 10 rounds of fruitless negotiations. When I was there this summer no one I spoke to failed to make the connection, blaming Arafat and the delegation members in equal measure.

Then in July three leading negotiators resigned, bewailing Arafat's undemocratic methods, implying that while they bled themselves dry with the Israelis, Arafat had opened up a secret channel for his negotiations. They were subsequently brought back into line, leaving their fellow negotiator, the respected Gaza leader and delegation head Dr Haidar Abdul Shafi, to issue statements calling "for reform and democracy".

With the PLO in decomposition and conditions in the territories abysmal, there never was a worse internal crisis for Palestinians than the one that began this past summer - that is, until Arafat fled into the Israeli plan, which in one stroke propels him on to centre stage again and rids the Israelis of an unwanted insurrectionary problem that Arafat must now work at solving for them. I admire those few Palestinian officials who bravely aver that this may be the first step toward ending the occupation, but anyone who knows the characteristic methods of Arafat's leadership is better advised to start working for a radical improvement in present conditions.

No political settlement of a long and bloody conflict can ever fit all the circumstances. To be recognised at last by Israel and the US may mean personal fulfilment for some, but it doesn't necessarily answer Palestinian needs or solve the leadership crisis. Our struggle is about freedom and democracy; it is secular and for a long time - indeed up to the last couple of years - it was fairly democratic. Arafat has cancelled the intifada unilaterally, possibly resulting in further dislocations, disappointments and conflict that bode poorly for both Palestinians and Israelis. In recent years Arafat's PLO (which is our only national institution) has refused to mobilise its various dispersed constituencies, to attract its people's best talents. Now it may try to regain the loyalty and compliance it expects before it plunges into a new phase, having seemed to mortgage its future without serious debate, without adequate preparation, without telling its people the full and bitter truth. Can it succeed, and still represent the Palestinian nation?

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