“We are not Red Indians,” Yasir Arafat declared on more than one occasion, a statement as surprising for its unsympathetic dismissal of an indigenous people with whom one would have thought a Palestinian leader would find common cause as for its blindness to the reality that—thanks in part to the leadership of Arafat—the Palestinians may yet go the way of the American Indians.
Rarely has the Palestinian cause looked as bleak as at the present. For over a decade, a profoundly compromised leadership led the Palestinian people down a path whose almost every step was dictated by Israel. Palestinian leaders (the ones Israel chose not to assassinate) seemed able to do little more than repeat the lines assigned to them by an Israeli narrative of domination. Apparently unable to come up with their own alternatives, they continued to call for a return to the “peace process” and the Bush road map long after it had become evident that these discourses of dispossession embody the very logic of the Israeli occupation itself. And they often did so under the most surreal circumstances, as though they were not in touch with their own people or even with the evening news. “If I am not a partner, ask yourselves who is a partner,” Mahmud Abbas pleaded to the Israeli public on the eve of the March 2006 Israeli elections, when it was obvious that Israelis were about to vote to proceed with the same unilateral and self-serving plan that they had been pursuing for decades, with or without a Palestinian leadership—whose only assigned role has been to acquiesce or remain silent. “I am one of those who signed the Oslo agreement and was a patron of the negotiations that were conducted prior to it in secret for eight months,” Abbas went on. “I supported, and I continue to support, a clear peace plan, based on the legitimacy of international law, to which we all agreed, and on the road map.”
It was as though Abbas had learned nothing; as though he were proud, rather than ashamed, of the secret capitulations he had entered into at Oslo, whose only tangible outcome has been the affirmation and indeed the reinforcement of the Israeli occupation, and the further immiseration and paralysis of the Palestinian people; and as though he actually believed that the road map—which seeks to shift responsibility for the occupation from the occupiers to the occupied—held out the chance of a just or even a reasonable peace (which of course it does not).
Narratives to Fit the Realities
The time has come for the Palestinians to take the initiative and turn the tables on an opponent that may be entitled to claim military, financial, organizational, and diplomatic superiority, but has no right—as anyone knows who has ever confronted an American Zionist equipped with all those tired clichés and worn-out myths—to claim dominance over the field of narrative and representation. And it is precisely on this field, in conjunction with renewed and re-energized activism at the grassroots level in Palestine and among Palestinians in exile, that the Palestinian struggle will likely be won or lost—if only because, unlike the military or diplomatic arenas, it is the only field in which the Palestinians have not (yet) been decisively defeated. By no means should this be seen to override or supersede the urgent work being done on the ground in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem; but there is an urgent need to mediate between efforts on the ground and the realm of representation, particularly in the United States, which, as Israel’s political and financial guarantor, holds many of the keys to ending the conflict.
What is needed, then, is a more honest and consistent set of narratives covering the various aspects of the Palestinian struggle as they take shape in a future in which the discourse of a two-state solution has no meaningful place. Aside from the fact that it never really addressed urgent issues such as the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority or those of the 1948 refugees and their descendents, the two-state solution has been rendered geographically unworkable by Israel’s relentless drive to create “facts on the ground” in the occupied territories (uprooting ancient olive groves, destroying orchards and fields, demolishing homes, and building roads, walls, outposts, and colonies): in 2006, there is literally no more room for a second state. A new set of narratives is urgently required, one that not only will give meaning to different forms of struggle (grassroots networking, activism, petitioning, publishing), but also better serve the Palestinian cause in its confrontation with Zionism, which has not, in ideological terms at least, undergone any significant developments since the late nineteenth century. It is, as the authors of one Arab-American blog rightly put it, “an ideology from another time.”
Indeed, undoubtedly the most effective way to think of the contours of this renewed struggle is to keep in mind the reality that the contest between Zionism and the Palestinians is ultimately a contest between a nineteenth century ideology (with a corresponding set of racial hierarchies and rigid forms of ethnic exclusion) utterly out of place in the contemporary world, and what ought to be a vibrant, intelligent, heterogeneous, flexible set of narratives accommodated to the twenty-first century.
In fact, despite the prevailing alignment of American and Israeli ideological viewpoints—an alignment that has come under increasing pressure as more and more Americans question it, which explains the perpetual near hysterical state of the network of individuals and institutions dedicated to the defense of Israel in the United States—it ought to be obvious that literally everything that Americans most pride themselves on in their own country, such as the separation of church and state, vigorous protections against racial and ethnic discrimination, social mobility and freedom, universal suffrage, the rule of law, and the protection of private property, is altogether incompatible with the day-to-day realities of Israel. As a state that was founded on—and that continues to operate according to—a logic of ethnic exclusivism, religious intolerance, political disenfranchisement, extrajudicial incarceration and assassination, expropriations of private property, and brutal military regulations. Israel’s implementation of Zionism’s core principles is fundamentally at odds with those ideological values that (notwithstanding its own violent history) America represents to itself and the world.
The fact that this simple reality is not adequately represented in the U.S. public sphere means that it is Israel that can be represented as “normal” to an American audience, while the Palestinians are the ones who are tarnished with the image of abnormality, otherness, and “extremism.” By way of example, an op-ed by Niall Ferguson in the Los Angeles Times cites the openly racist Arnon Sofer of Haifa University as though he were a respectable social scientist operating in the accepted mainstream of his field.  The point here is not that Ferguson relies upon Sofer’s crude xenophobia to evaluate the “risks” to Israel’s “democracy” from all those over-reproductive Arabs who seem to have no other function in the world but to overwhelm the Jewish state with their sheer numbers. Rather, the point is that, from Ferguson’s uninformed (but conventional) perspective, it is Sofer who looks “normal,” and it is the Palestinians who look like a swarm of locusts threatening to clutter a beautiful democratic ideal.
Obviously, such assertions need to be challenged, and the realities of Israel’s extraordinary institutionalized racism—as well as the abuses of international humanitarian law that Israel carries out on a daily basis in Jerusalem and the occupied territories—need to be documented and represented to as wide an audience as possible.
Such challenges amount to what the English poet William Blake once identified as “intellectual warfare.” What this form of struggle most urgently requires is a new set of Palestinian narratives to replace the outmoded ones bequeathed by a different era. Although their task will not be easy, in the formulation of narratives the Palestinians have at least one enormous advantage over their opponents. Israel’s defenders have to weave an ever more tangled (and ever more fragile) web of half-truths and outright lies in order to justify their position, a position which is entirely out of synch with the world in which we live and which uses language—as Harold Pinter put it recently in a not dissimilar context—to keep thought at bay. By contrast, and no matter how naïve this sounds, all the Palestinians have to do is to express the reality of their own historical and actual circumstances. There is no better way of illustrating the lopsided nature of the contest between Israel and the Palestinians at the narrative level than to point out the fact that whereas Alan Dershowitz’s baseless, plagiarized, and shoddily written Case for Israel represents the sorry state of the art of Zionist propaganda, Palestinians can still draw on the rich intellectual legacy of Edward Said.
No one did more than Said to present a clearly articulated set of points distinguishing the Palestinian cause from what Israel and Zionism stand for. The task now is to extend Said’s accomplishments, to carry on where he left off. First and foremost is the need to follow his lead and explore alternatives to the so-called two-state solution, which has—to say the very least—run its course, as Said himself (who was an early advocate of the two-state solution at a stage when it seemed feasible) repeatedly insisted in his final years.
The opponents of the Palestinian cause place much emphasis on a state-centered solution to the question of Palestine, even though their putative Palestinian state does not look anything like the textbook version of a state. However, it is not only for that reason the Palestinians ought to be wary, but also because Israel keeps insisting that the scraps of disconnected territory held together entirely at its whim would be taken to constitute a Palestinian state—“with attributes of sovereignty,” according to the language of the road map. For Palestinians to accept that or any other “state” is not a solution to their problems.
The creation of a mere state could even be said to compromise the question of Palestine—because the Palestinian cause is about more than merely a state. The Palestinian struggle is about more than simply contesting one nationalism with another, and replacing one ethnically defined state with another. Rather, at its best, the struggle for Palestine seeks to contest an unacceptable system of ethnic separation and exclusion with a vision of inclusion and cooperation; to challenge claims of divine dispensation with secular and humanist arguments; to refuse the logic of physical violence with principles of nonviolent intervention. In a word, the Palestinian struggle is ultimately not about a state but about justice.
The point here is not that Palestinians ought to start making the case for a one-state alternative (a task that has been undertaken by non-Palestinians such as Tony Judt and Virginia Tilley). Rather, it is to make clear that what the Palestinians are opposing is not merely the state of Israel as a state for one people that violently excludes another on its own land, but also the logic of an ethnically defined state in the first place, a logic whose ugly realities are nowhere more graphically revealed than in Israel itself, as well as in its policies in the occupied territories. For example, Israel’s policy to hold the population of Jerusalem in a certain ethnic ratio—72 percent Jews, 28 percent “non-Jews”—has no equivalent in the contemporary world; but, shocking as this policy is, hardly anyone seems to know about it. It furnishes, however, a striking illustration of what is wrong with Israel—and a valuable opportunity for Palestinians to explain what they would do differently.
In a sense, then, Palestinians have always diminished their own cause on those occasions when they have expressed it merely as a quest for nothing more than a state of their own. For ultimately the Palestinian cause was never solely about the creation of a state, but rather about a larger set of issues, about the need to address a much broader question of historical and political injustices—and about the urgent need to find a just, peaceful, and humane way to resolve the conflict with Israel. At its best, the Palestinian cause has always sought to integrate the reality of Israel—and the existence of Israelis as human beings—into its own narratives, in exactly the inverse of the way in which Palestine and the Palestinians have been systematically removed, whenever possible, from Zionism’s and Israel’s accounts of themselves.
This is a remarkable fact, one that Palestinians understate at their peril—for it sums up the ways in which the Palestinian struggle differs from Zionism. Indeed, it seems to me that this claim ought to be one of the central components of the Palestinian narrative of liberation for the twenty-first century.
Saree Makdisi is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.
1. Niall Ferguson, “After Sharon, Which Deluge?” Los Angeles Times, 9 January 2006.