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The spirit of Palestine

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s dramatic bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN signaled the final death of the so-called ‘peace process’

Mona Anis , Wednesday 28 Sep 2011
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“The discrepancy between important political, moral, and cultural gains on the one hand, and, on the other, a droning ground bass of land alienation is at the heart of the Palestinian dilemma today. To speak of this discrepancy in aesthetic terms as an ironic one is by no means to reduce or trivialize its force. On the contrary: what to many Palestinians is either an incomprehensible cruelty of fate or a measure of how appalling are the prospects for settling their claims can be clarified by seeing irony as a constitutive factor in their lives.”

Thus wrote Edward Said, who died eight years ago this week, in the 1992 preface to his first explicitly political work, The Question of Palestine, written in 1977-8 and published in 1979.

It was the bid for statehood by the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the UN General Assembly last Friday that sent me frantically searching for an idea that Said elaborated in a lecture I attended some 30 years ago. I needed a more dependable source than memory to be sure of what he had said then about paradox and irony being constitutive elements in the lives of the Palestinians.

One reason behind the sense of urgency I felt was my emotional response to Abbas's General Assembly speech when it was transmitted live. Here was the architect of the Oslo Accords standing before the whole world to declare the very policies dead that he had actively been responsible for, going on to follow them over the subsequent 20 years.

It was the Oslo Accords, after all, that gradually diminished, if not completely negated, prospects of a two-state solution by handing over to Israel most of what the Palestinian side of that solution was to be built on. The irony of ironies about Abbas’s appearance at the UN General Assembly was that the very embodiment of the compromised Arab regimes’ total subjugation to the US and Israel was now standing up for the Palestinian people’s right to have their own state.

In a matter of minutes it was all over. “The ‘peace process,’ the ‘road map,’ the ‘Oslo agreement’: the whole fandango is history,” as Robert Fisk aptly put it in his Independentarticle, published two days before Abbas addressed the Assembly. In the same article, Fisk wondered if at the last minute “Mahmoud Abbas would not succumb to his characteristic grovelling in the face of US-Israeli power.” It was a valid question, given Abbas’s record over many years. The fact that he didn’t confirms beyond any doubt his final recognition of the hopelessness of the process he had plunged into.  

Abbas is desperate; that much is certain. Yet, it is doubtful whether this new alternative strategy will yield results, since he was practically forced to adopt it by Israel’s unwillingness to give him even the minimum concessions necessary to keep his Authority afloat and the reluctance of Washington – the “honest broker” of the peace process – to exert pressure on the Israelis before the US presidential elections next year.

Why, then, as many friends have asked me, feel any excitement about a diplomatic move that may resolve little if anything? The end of the present, flawed “peace process” has long been anticipated after all, and by itself it is no reason to celebrate. Some friends have gone even further in their rejection of Abbas’s diplomatic move, claiming that will lead to a win-win situation for Israel: “whether the UN grants the PA the government of a state under occupation and observer status as a state or refuses to do so, either outcome will be in the interest of Israel,” argued Joseph Massad a week before Abbas gave his address.

Though I may disagree about the inevitability of Abbas’s statehood bid being beneficial to Israel, I am also sceptical about the outcome. Palestinian history has been fraught with tragedies, to the extent that one wonders, with former US president Bill Clinton, “if God wants Middle East peace or not.” This was a question Clinton posed last week at a roundtable with bloggers on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, though he provided all the wrong answers to why peace was so difficult to achieve.

A just peace in the Middle East has never been at hand, though at certain times it might have seemed closer than it does now. Indeed, one of the paradoxes characterising the Palestinian liberation struggle is that, in Said’s words, “thousands of lives lost and many more irreparably damaged seem not to have diminished the spirit of resilience characterising a national movement that despite its many achievements in gaining legitimacy, visibility, and enormous sustenance for its people against staggering odds, has not discovered a method for stopping or containing the relentless Israeli attempt to take more and more Palestinian (as well as other Arab) territory.”

Such Palestinian resilience against all odds, coupled with what Said describes as Palestine being the embodiment of “what is best and most vital in the pan-Arab tradition of cooperation, dramatic energy and spirit,” will continue to inform the action of the young Arab generations now challenging the old political order, which, in its total subjugation to US dictates, has inflicted such tremendous damage on the cause of Palestine.

In Abbas’s speech before the UN General Assembly last week, among many references and allusions that he made, the mention of two names inextricably linked with the Palestinian struggle in the post-1967 era drew a standing ovation from most participants: Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Darwish. I found the memory of Arafat’s eloquent 1974 speech at the UN – a speech that incidentally both Darwish and Said collaborated in writing – in which he said that he had come bearing an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other and warning against letting the olive branch drop, particularly moving. This was because I recall the 1970s with great vividness: it was a time when not one progressive political movement failed to identify with the Palestinian struggle.

It is now time for the Palestinian struggle to regain its centrality in the consciousness of the world at large, and in that of the Arab world in particular. The true reason for my excitement is this: the announcement of the death of the “whole fandango” that began with the Middle East Peace Conference in the autumn of 1991 could be a step in that direction.

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