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Edward Said, long a critic of Israel's policies toward Palestinians, has recently become a leading voice against the Oslo peace process and Yasir Arafat's rule in the Palestinian Authority (PA). If much of Said's criticism of Israel and the PA is on target, his writings against the peace process show a tendency to factual distortions, vitriolic argumentation, and a constricted vision of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. This poses a dilemma: How do those committed to such Palestinian-Israeli coexistence, to a future of Palestinian self-determination, to human rights, and democracy, reconcile the truth of much of what Said depicts with his harsh dismissals of the Oslo peace process those—which may be the only viable path to such a future?

In considering this dilemma, it is worth noting two points. One, Said and other rejectionists' failure to articulate positive alternatives accounts for their lack of popular resonance among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The continuation of Oslo and substantial negotiations are the primary political demand of most Palestinians. Two, as a respected commentator, Said's vituperative rhetoric -- examples of which will be given later -- sets an unfortunate precedent in a Palestinian civil society struggling to develop positive traditions of peaceful political debate and discourse to replace a depressingly long history of absolutist rhetoric. These two points give cause to worry that Said's writings play a profoundly irresponsible role in the intellectual climate in which opinions about the peace process are formed.


Said, like other rejectionists, early on made clear his unwillingness to engage in the slow and difficult transitional stage toward coexistence that the Oslo framework prescribes. Regrettably, he has also been unwilling to sustain a reasoned critique of the peace process specifying how and why Oslo's compromises are distinct from those he supports, and what he proposes in its place. Specifically, Said ignores the peace process' immediate benefits as well as the future it offers of broad autonomy and, possibly, statehood in favor of a call "to stop negotiations dramatically."[1] He thus rejects the only tangible path so far presented to the coexistence he professes to advocate. The illogic of Said's argument becomes clear when one tries to cut through his heated rhetoric and understand exactly where he stands on the issues at hand.

Compromise. While repeatedly proclaiming his attachment to compromise, how Said defines compromise is most unclear. He accepts Israel's existence within its 1948 boundaries, but is dissatisfied with the process that is progressively bringing Palestinians control of the land lost by Jordan and Egypt in 1967. His alternative is not spelled out.

Terrorism. Said makes principled denunciations of terror attacks against innocent Israelis, but also downplays Israeli fears and says it is "demagoguery" to call Hamas and Islamic Jihad "terrorists" because "they have said several times they will not use violence against other Palestinians."[2] This amounts to a refusal to come to terms with the elemental fact that progress for Palestinians can only be made when, for example, long-demanded border openings are not immediately followed by suicide bombings, no matter how thin Palestinian popular support for such bombings and how excessive Israeli countermeasures. Said offers no alternative to reconcile the mutual need of Palestinians and Israelis for peace and security.

Economics. Said violently opposes economic separation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), but just as violently opposes Israeli domination of the Palestinian economy, which would result from free trade and flow of labor. Again, his alternative is not spelled out. The most specific Said gets in his critique is that dispossessed Palestinians are entitled to compensation. He neglects to mention that the status of refugees and compensation are among the issues that have been specifically placed on the final-status negotiating agenda.

When asked what his alternative to the peace process would be, Said's full response to the question is representative of the rejectionists' inability to develop a coherent alternative to the peace process. He makes three points: one, that the Camp David alternative had always existed. He hastens to add, however, that he has always rejected Camp David. Thus, the first point is of another alternative rejected, rather than an actual alternative. Said ends this rather convoluted first "alternative" by saying "this question about alternatives should not be asked of me, but of them. "Said's second point is that he is "not a politician and therefore has no solutions."[3] Perhaps not, but he is a major player in diaspora Palestinian politics and it is disingenuous of him to claim otherwise. The third point is criticism of the Builders for Peace program for funding construction of tourist facilities and a water-bottling plant in Gaza, but nothing in Jerusalem. How this particular criticism constitutes an alternative is unclear. Said's alternatives, thus, come down to: not Camp David; ask them; I'm not a politician; and a very specific criticism of an aid project.

The Oslo agreements laid out a risky path to peace and are certainly not beyond criticism. Palestinians' minimum demands were not immediately satisfied and the agreements do not contain an effective mechanism to enforce their implementation. Nonetheless, simple rejectionism without an alternative is both impractical and unprincipled. As a matter of practical strategy, one would think that something would have been learned from previous Palestinian leaders' refusal to positively engage with their adversaries. As a matter of principle, is it not troubling simply to seek the continuation of a status quo in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was humiliating and debilitating to both Palestinians and Israelis, while awaiting a hoped-for deus ex machina that would fulfill Palestinian dreams?

This is not the end of Said's impracticality. Like many rejectionists, he originally argued that Jericho and the Gaza Strip do not equal justice for Palestinians (describing it as "autonomy in two little places with no hint at all of where the peace process is heading. No other liberation movement in the twentieth century got so little")[4] and refused to recognize that engagement in the peace process offered Palestinians much more than this limited initial withdrawal. Following the Oslo II agreement and the subsequent withdrawals, Said now argues that Palestinians are receiving only a small percentage of their land,[5] again not justifying the notion of substantial concessions by Israel.

One might first reply that the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under Palestinian authority since the Oslo II accord was implemented -- percentage of land is only one way to measure the degree of Palestinian autonomy and Israeli concessions. More to the point, Said seems not to understand the basic definition of two simple words: "interim phase. "No serious observer could have argued that Arafat had traded Palestinian rights for Jericho and the Gaza Strip when it was obvious that these were simply the first in an envisioned series of Israeli pullbacks. Nor was it serious to claim after the second stage of Israeli pullbacks that (in the same words he used to describe the first Gaza-Jericho phase) "no other liberation movement in the twentieth century got so little -- roughly 5 percent of its territory."[6] In fact, this again is an interim phase, meaning that it specifically stipulates completing Israeli pullbacks from Areas B and C in three further stages that are to take place regardless of progress in the final-status negotiations, and in addition to whatever is agreed upon during these final-status negotiations.

Rather than arguing that Israel must implement the peace agreement or that the long-term vision of the peace process is flawed, Said simply ignores this long-term vision and blindly (or willfully) argues against the first two interim withdrawals, as if these were the only plays in the process.


In refusing to tangle with what the Israeli-PLO negotiations actually might offer, Said joins the long history of Palestinian rejectionism that has made a principle of resisting substantive negotiations that take into account practical political realities and the notion of step-by-step progress. In so doing, he rejects the first positive move toward coexistence rather than mutual destruction between Palestinians and Israelis. While it may not be immediate, and it may not constitute perfect justice, the autonomy of the Palestinian Authority does reverse this century's tailspin in Palestinian political fortunes, it is the first significant grant of political rights to Palestinians, and it does allow a much stronger foundation than any that Palestinians have had in recent years from which to argue and negotiate for further concessions (i.e., regarding Israeli settlements, refugees, shared sovereignty in Jerusalem, and statehood). By taking what is available and continuing to push for more, the peace process offers the only constructive path to Palestinian self-determination.

This is a far cry from where Palestinians stood before the first Oslo agreement, when the intifada was dwindling in the Occupied Territories and, internationally, the Palestinian political and intellectual leadership was discredited by their politically unwise and morally corrupt support for Saddam Husayn. It would have been difficult at that time to imagine interim autonomy and substantial negotiations over the fundamental issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet, even after the Oslo II agreement (and before Likud took power in Israel), Said insisted that "no negotiations are better than endless concessions that simply prolong Israeli occupation."[7] Only the most bitter opponent of peace could argue that if one is against Israeli military occupation, Israeli military pullbacks and transfer of political power to an elected Palestinian authority are worse for Palestinians. The inhabitants of the newly Palestinian-controlled towns clearly do not agree, but then Said seems to have written them off too, explaining wearily that they are a people "which seems to have given up all hope and all will to resist";[8] elsewhere, he deplores their "sense of passivity and defeat"[9] as well as their "ignorance and laziness."[10] Perhaps a more just explanation would be that they simply disagree with Said, and the vast majority of Palestinians are instead valiantly opting for a reality of coexistence and its concomitant compromises rather than an eternity of confrontation.[11]

Although Said rhetorically accepts Palestinian-Israeli coexistence, on closer inspection this is really quite nebulous. Not only does he reject both the Oslo agreements and Camp David, but he resigned from the PLO before the Madrid conference, partly in protest at the negotiating platform agreed to by both the independent leadership from the territories and the PLO.[12] On a different note, he refuses even informal dialogue with Israeli counterparts as well as "the extraordinary haste in which cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis is being urged. "In his mind, "real dialogue is between equals. . . . Then we can begin to talk seriously about cooperation. In the meantime cooperation can all too easily shade into collaboration."[13] This is a peculiar condition for talks at either the personal or political level. At a time when Sinn Fein is clamoring for all-party peace talks in Ireland, when talks have brought an end to the worst of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and when talks in South Africa resulted in a peaceful transfer of power, it seems odd to fold one's arms and avoid cooperation (or "collaboration") until such a time that there is "equality." Is it not more heroic, if less satisfying, to reject impossible conditions and try and take advantage of whatever openings for progress exist?

Rhetorical Excess

What is saddest about Said's position is the language in which he expresses it. He does not just disagree with those who support the peace process, he decries them as "sycophants," "hypocritical," and even implies they are collaborators, which he explicitly calls Arafat and those in his "Vichy government." "Intellectuals and scholars" who disagree with him have "completely capitulated" and "betrayed their vocations, expertise, and knowledge." He adds that

Most Palestinian intellectuals who are capable of understanding the reality are too anxious to bolster their self-esteem by actively seeking to cooperate with Israel and the U.S. with results for their compatriots which are dispiriting. In this, they follow Arafat and his lieutenants who have abandoned all principles and their history just to be recognized by the White Man.[14]

Said's name-calling even resorts to pulling out Fanon's simplistic maxim of "black skin/white mask" to describe those with a more realistic view of what coexistence means.[15]

This sort of rhetorical excess is not atypical for Said. From his blanket, undifferentiated dismissals of scholars in Orientalism to his characterization of Afsaneh Najmabadi (a brilliant and highly respected scholar) as "zany," "wacko," and a "careerist" for her disagreement with his apologia for Saddam Husayn -- which included his discounting evidence of Saddam's genocidal chemical gas campaign against Iraq's Kurds -- Said and respectful disagreement have often been strangers.[16] In this case, such excessive language continues Palestinian leaders' history of absolutist rhetoric rather than constructive leadership. More immediately, it echoes and gives political support to the small rejectionist front while ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who support the peace process (a number that, contrary to the predictions of Said and others, increased dramatically as the peace agreements were implemented).[17] Are those who have lived or continue to live under the Israeli military "collaborators" if they choose the path of accepting the possible rather than holding out for the utopia that diaspora Palestinians have long promised?It is ironic that Said, who has done so much to make visible to the world the harsh realities of Palestinian life under Israel, is now working to make invisible the political wants and desires of these same Palestinians.

Building a Model Government

Said denounces "Yasir Arafat's tyrannical regime"[18] and cogently notes that "we should remind ourselves that much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is."[19] The lack of respect for human rights, rule of law, free press, and independent civil institutions under Arafat are indeed ominous. While one can wonder why Said never showed public concern with Arafat's party-boss tendencies in the decades prior to the peace process, and why his own rhetoric hardly seems to favor democratic dialogue, it is more immediately troubling that he refuses to join with Hanan Ashrawi and the many other activists engaging with the Palestinian Authority to try and forge a democratic political culture rather than complain that it is not being handed down from on high. What is essential is the creation of a civil atmosphere both among Palestinians and between Palestinians and Israelis, an atmosphere of a commitment to peace by all sides, which is the only context in which Palestinians can gain concessions from Israel and build the civil and political foundations of their own future.

Said's rejectionism speaks for few in the West Bank or Gaza, which should be kept in mind by Said's readers in the West. There is no utopia waiting around the corner if Palestinians return to saying "no" to substantial negotiations and compromise. Most Palestinians in the PA have apparently recognized this hard truth. Islamic Jihad or Hamas present two options, but they are accepted by only a small minority and it may be that they have come to parallel the IRA or the Basque ETA, in which a hard core of violent rejectionists continues to cost the lives of innocents and the interests of their own community. Secular rejectionism -- whether headquartered in Damascus or New York -- is another option but is accepted by an even smaller minority.

It is hoped that those who mouth the rhetoric of compromise will engage in the peace process, voicing both specific criticisms and positive proposals. In addition, as important as progress with Israel is, it is perhaps just as important that the PA institutionalize representative and accountable governance. The PA, be it ever so modest, has the potential to become a model to the rest of the Arab world. Its people's high level of education, political sophistication, and, importantly, expectations of democracy and human rights make it a ray of hope in the dark night of Arab politics. Should strong, independent institutions -- civil and governmental, each governed by the rule of law -- be established under the PA, it won't matter what Arafat's personal proclivities are: if he wants power, he will conform to what these institutions, and the people behind them, require. This is an extraordinarily difficult battle, but it is essential for prominent figures such as Said to engage in it.

Success in this endeavor is not separate from success in negotiating with Israel. If the world sees a democratic Palestinian political entity that maintains its commitment to peace despite extreme provocation, the Palestinian claim to self-determination will be strengthened. On the other hand, those who refuse to engage in these difficult processes will have to bear their share of the responsibility for failing to support the only path thus far presented to peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, and a democratic and accountable Palestinian political entity.

Anthony B. Tirado Chase is a visiting instructor in political science at Wheaton College and a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. As a Pew Foundation Scholar in 1966, he conducted research on human-rights issues relevant to the draft Palestinian Authority constitution.

[1] "Hassanan . . . wa madha ba`d," Al-Hayat (London), Nov. 8, 1995; published as "Where Do We Go from Here?" Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Nov. 9-15., 1995.

[2] Peace and Its Discontents:Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (New York: Vintage, 1996), p. 19.

[3] "Symbols over Substance: A Year after the Declaration of Principles: An Interview with Edward Said," The Journal of Palestinian Studies, Winter 1995, pp. 69.

[4] "The Middle East ‘Peace Process':Misleading Images and Brutal Actualities," public lecture at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Apr. 20, 1995.

[5] Said's figures vary, and never make a sharp distinction between Areas A, B, and C. It is commonly accepted that 5 percent of the West Bank and Gaza are under exclusive PA authority (Area A), and 30 percent under primary PA control (Area B).

[6] "The Mirage of Peace," The Nation, Oct. 16, 1995, p. 418. Of course, there are any number of liberation movements which received absolutely nothing for their efforts.

[7] "Hassanan . . . wa madha ba`d."

[8] "Where Negotiations Have Led," Al-Ahram Weekly, Oct. 5-11, 1995.

[9] "Hassanan . . . wa madha ba`d."

[10] Peace and Its Discontents, p. 132.

[11] This derisory attitude toward residents of the West Bank and Gaza seems odd from the author of Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), which exposed the propensity of Western academics to adopt just this sort of outlook toward their subjects.

[12] Peace and Its Discontents, p. xxviii.

[13] Ibid., p. 38.

[14] All of the above from the public lecture at The Fletcher School; similar phrases appear in Said's writings.

[15] "Symbols Over Substance" and the public lecture at The Fletcher School.

[16] "The Intellectuals and the War," MERIP, No. 171, July-August 1991; Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Said's War on the Intellectuals," and "Edward Said Responds," MERIP, No. 173, November-December, 1991. The reference to the Iraqi gas attack was cited by Najmabadi from The London Review of Books, March 7, 1991: "The claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best, this is uncertain."

[17] In "The Mirage of Peace," Said explains that "the emergence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are part of the continuing protest [against the inequities of the peace process] and should be understood as that. Their suicide missions ...are acts of defiance principally, refusals to accept the crippling conditions of Israeli occupation and Palestinian collaboration. "In fact, these groups had emerged and reached the height of their popularity before the Oslo Agreement and one wonders if Said would accept by his own logic that the precipitous decline in support for Islamist and other rejectionist groups -- clear in the elections, in opinion polls and to anyone who has visited and spoken with Palestinians in the territories—is a sign of widespread acceptance for the peace process.

[18] The New York Times, Jan. 17, 1997.

[19] Peace and Its Discontents, p. 16.