Edward Said Saw the Future of Israel and Palestine

How the literary theorist’s life and work shed light on the epic failure of U.S. Middle East policy.

Edward Said portrait
Author Edward Said is pictured in Paris on Nov. 25, 1996. Ulf Andersen/Getty Images


Edward Said portrait Edward Said portrait

Author Edward Said is pictured in Paris on Nov. 25, 1996. Ulf Andersen/Getty Images


Edward Said portrait

Author Edward Said is pictured in Paris on Nov. 25, 1996. Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

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Radicalism is nothing more than understanding the root of a problem. Time and again, the late Palestinian and American thinker Edward Said struck at the self-deceptions, the shortcomings, and the prejudices underlying U.S. foreign policy. Throughout the 1990s—when the “end of history” seemed at hand, to be ushered in by a global peace brokered by U.S. supremacy—Said forewarned of the “charade” of the U.S. peace process in the Middle East. He despaired toward the end of his life of any change in the Palestinians’ disastrous position, whose leadership had signed away any gains made in the national struggle for self-determination with the Oslo Accords, which he called “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.”

Book cover of Places of Mind

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, Timothy Brennan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $35, March 2021

Recent events in Palestine and Israel have shown Said was one of the few people to frame this issue properly. The U.S. media is beginning to catch up with his positions, which were considered radical in his own time, mostly because of the deep sense of history his writings evinced. The change has been led by the conversion of American liberals like Peter Beinart, whose recent articles supporting the rights of Palestinians in Jewish Currents earned him a profile in the New Yorker. But the U.S. establishment is rarely willing to consider the idea that the Palestinian national liberation struggle—in so far as it had any hope of leading to a two-state solution—ended with U.S. brokered talks in the 1990s rather than began with them. This 30-year lag has done great damage to U.S. foreign policy in the region as well as American national politics.

The conflict in Palestine is as much a “war of images and ideas” as it is a question of policy, as Said clearly understood. For a couple decades, Said was the most influential spokesperson for the Palestinians in the United States—a lonely and courageous position at a time when using the word “Palestine” was considered a political provocation. The U.S. public’s complacency is one of the greatest aids to Israeli influence over U.S. policy—and it was here that Said’s eloquence struck its greatest triumph, with even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee warning its supporters that “challenging him will only make you look bad.” Today, Israel’s leaders can no longer take public complaisance or, as Said put it, the “near-total triumph for Zionism” in U.S. public and political discourse for granted. There should be no doubt this is largely the legacy of Edward Said.

Said was a political activist, scholar, memoirist, and literary and musical critic. Every U.S. humanities student in the past few decades has dealt with his legacy. Said’s book Orientalism prepared the way for a revolution in the study of literature, history, and politics. This unexpected, scholarly bestseller showed the European humanities—whether it is the writing of a novel or the study of foreign languages—played a role in advancing the injustices of global imperialism. In Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said—the first major biography of the iconic thinker since his death in 2003—author Timothy Brennan said Said used writing Orientalism to come to grips with the iniquitous portrayal of Palestine in the U.S. media. Said ended up going further into the history of Western literary and colonialist discourse to understand how modern pundits could so grossly subsume events like the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 or Israel’s discriminatory state within the meretricious rubric of the “Middle Eastern conflict.”

“Said’s political work,” Brennan explained, “found its basis in literary criticism.” This is quite literally true: Said parsed, edited, and helped to translate several texts of the Palestinian movement in the 1970s and 1980s, including nationalist leader Yasser Arafat’s first address before the United Nations. Said’s role in this movement also mediated his study of modern literary theory. He ended by being an inveterate anti-colonial thinker rather than a scholastic of post-colonialism’s trivialities. (“I don’t think the ‘post’ applies at all,” Said once told a colleague.) This is what allowed Said to carry on his fight against the shabby canards of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, chief among them the Middle East “peace process.”

Edward Said portrait

Edward Said was an English and literature professor at Columbia University and a leading political commentator and advocate of the Palestinian cause in October 1980. Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images

Said should be remembered as a thinker of U.S. foreign affairs alongside his achievements as a literary scholar and representative of the Palestinian movement. This is a claim Brennan approaches but falls short of stating flatly. With startling aplomb, Said rejected the 1993 Oslo Accords and the Middle East peace process that followed, which was one of the principle theaters of U.S. diplomacy in the pre-9/11 belle époque. The essays and interviews he gave in the following years would fill five volumes and represented some of his strongest, most lasting, and most clairvoyant writings.

Said described the protests, strikes, and boycotts of the First Intifada in the late 1980s as “surely the most impressive and disciplined anti-colonial insurrection in this century.” Instead of building on it, he felt Arafat signed away any gains in the nationalist cause for the U.S. government’s flimsy promises of being an honest broker. It was, he repeated over the next few years, the only time an occupied people had agreed to negotiate with their occupiers before a withdrawal had happened or been agreed on.

Said believed the purpose of peace negotiations was to provide Israel with security—not to give Palestinians a state within the so-called Green Lines. This position caused a bitter rift between Said and Arafat, but others within the Palestinian leadership—among them politician and writer Hanan Ashrawi—came around to agreeing with much of his position. Over the next decade, Said kept up a frantic pace of writings as the extent of the Palestinian defeat grew.

The root of the problem was the U.S. government—the “big white father,” Said caustically called it—never treated the Palestinians as equals to the Israelis; this is not merely a moral question but an inadequacy of U.S. diplomacy that foreclosed any agreement. The Declaration of Principles—the document known as the Oslo Accords—doesn’t make a single reference to a Palestinian state, self-determination, or sovereignty but provides for a kind of “municipal self-rule” (as Said termed it) without committing to ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Gaza. (Here it only commits to limited Israeli “redeployments.”) Some people hoped Arafat could build on this in the fabled “final status negotiations” the agreement promised. Instead, the United States pursued a so-called incremental approach that was largely driven by Israeli demands for further Palestinian concessions but did nothing to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements that had already made a two-state solution almost impossible.

“Does this mean ominously that the interim stage may be, in effect, the final one too?” Said asked. It was almost bound to be so, as Said understood the politics of power behind it. The year after his death, Clayton Swisher’s The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story About the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process was published. This book should be a classic study of U.S. diplomacy’s historic failures and its lawyering for Israel. Yet the expectation persists that Palestinians should be content with less than what other national groups have accepted (an “as-if state,” Israeli writer David Grossman called it, without full sovereignty over its water, airspace, or land). Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan—which the current administration has declined to disown so far—showed Israel doesn’t want any two-state solution but further Palestinian surrender.

U.S. President Bill Clinton watches as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shake hands

Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton watches as then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shake hands in the White House’s garden in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993. MPI/Getty Images

Brennan said Said reserved “his greatest wrath for Middle East pundits” as a writer. The “fatuous solemnity” with which the U.S. establishment greeted Trump’s Abraham Accords recalled Said’s characterization of former President Bill Clinton’s White House in his essay, “The Morning After,” when the U.S. president appeared like a “20th-century Roman emperor” imposing peace on “vassal kings” during the handshake between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Of course, this was all theater and nothing but further Arab capitulation—as were the Abraham Accords that recognized normalization between Israel and several Arab states it had, for the most part, long-standing ties.

U.S. diplomats speak as if the two-state solution was possible or only a matter of resuming talks. Indeed, the canard of the two-state solution was used to justify the Abraham Accords, which had nothing to do with bringing about Palestinian rights. From the 1990s, Said foresaw how the U.S. peace process prevented anything but a single-state reality. As Brennan said, Said consistently “outpaced” think tank intellectuals in Washington.

This isn’t to say Said was an oracle of the current situation in Palestine or the region. Indeed, Brennan chronicled his shaky debut in Arab politics in letters during his time living in 1970s Beirut. But it was Said’s unusual, almost outsider’s approach to understanding the Middle East that supplied him with an independence of thought where others clung to political orthodoxies. An American professor of English literature at Columbia University, Said was always on the margins of Arafat’s movement as he felt he was on the margins of the U.S. establishment because he was born an Arab and a Palestinian.

Said’s positions on Palestinian affairs were heretical as often as they were orthodox, viewed from within the nationalist movement. Beginning with The Question of Palestine—the book that followed Orientalism—Said saw tactically ahead to the concessions the Palestinian struggle would have to make. Principally, this meant finding a way to share the land of Palestine. This consistent belief in equal rights drove Said toward a two-state solution that would leave most of historical Palestine to the Jewish state—a position later supported by Arafat’s group.

Toward the end of his life, it was the same belief in equal rights that convinced Said of a single-state solution—whatever federal, binational, or other constitutional form this would take. Recently, this rights-based approach has gained more attention following major reports from the Israeli group B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch concluding Israel is practicing apartheid against the Palestinians.

Said was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, though he thought much of its influence on U.S. policy “disastrous,” according to Brennan. This establishment bayed at Trump’s alleged betrayals of U.S. foreign policy and values. Then, there was the sense of relief, even exuberance, when Trump struck Syria.

Trump was the summum of U.S.-Middle Eastern doublespeak—he merely pulled away the curtain. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that endorsed Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and celebrated “the 50th anniversary of [Israel’s] reunification” of the holy city. This was referring to Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, which flatly ignored how international law considers it occupied territory. The resolution also called for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “without preconditions” and reaffirmed U.S. policy that “the permanent status of Jerusalem remains a matter to be decided between the parties through final status negotiations towards a two-state solution.” None of this makes sense. Besides, what’s there left to negotiate?

The resolution was a mangling of language that reflected long-standing U.S. practices. “The silence and the wanton murder of language evident in the phrase ‘peace process,’” Said recorded, “are central to the Israeli (and American) project.” Among other examples, Said was referring to Washington’s misrepresentations of the Israeli state throughout the 1990s. This included Warren Christopher, former U.S. secretary of state whose signature was scrawled across the Oslo Accords and who refused during his confirmation hearings to characterize Israel’s military control of the Palestinian territories as an “occupation.” His department’s deputy press secretary, when asked for a “clear statement of policy on settlements,” delivered an incoherent answer that deferred the issue to “final status” talks. “There is a causal relationship,” Said concluded, “between this sort of talk and Israel’s emboldened land expropriation.”

This habitual misuse of the English language in the peace process did enormous damage to U.S. politics. After 9/11, it began to manifest itself in many ways. Said described the Patriot Act passed in October 2001 as “an Israelization of U.S. policy.” He had forewarned “the terrorism craze is dangerous because it consolidates the immense, unrestrained pseudo-patriotic narcissism we are nourishing.” This could very well characterize the present Republican Party, but it’s worth recalling Said was speaking of a Democratic president, Clinton. There is a straight line from the camouflaged falsehoods of the “peace process” to those of the “war on terror,” the “pro-democracy” invasion of Iraq (pushed by U.S. liberals like Beinart), Trump’s embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and what now appears to be a discredited U.S. political establishment.

Many American liberals have taken shelter in the notion that a “right-wing” Israeli government is the problem. Netanyahu isn’t the root of the problem, the ideas he represents are. A large part of The Question of Palestine is given over to explaining the beginnings of Zionism in 19th-century European colonialism as well as how “the massive architectural, demographic, and political metamorphosis” of Palestine first took place as a projection in the writings of early Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl. The idea of a “land without people for a people without a land” was not incidentally tied up with Victorian ideas of using Biblical scholarship to prove the inferiority of the present inhabitants of Arab lands. In modern times, Israeli prime ministers since Menachem Begin have referred to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, leading up to the real possibility of annexation—which former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, insisted wasn’t “annexation” at all because “Israel’s historical claim to this territory dates back over three millennia.”

Edward Said portrait

Edward Said is pictured in Modena, Italy, on Sept. 18, 2001. Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

In the past month, any television watcher will have seen the U.S. media increasingly does permit Palestinians to tell their story (though it’s important to keep in mind the tendentious clichés of “terrorism” in the 1990s or “Islam” in the early 2000s set a low bar for accommodating the Arab perspective in American discourse). This was a problem Said laid out in his magisterial essay “Permission to Narrate.” Israel and its supporters worked to deny Palestinians the right to narrate their experience. The absence of a Palestinian narrative, by extension, meant there was no need to acknowledge a Palestinian people, Palestinian history, or Palestinian right to self-determination within a homeland.

“Facts do not at all speak for themselves,” Said reflected, “but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them.” As has been remarked on elsewhere, the United States’ reckoning with its history of racism has accelerated a cultural shift that is exposing the inadequacies of the United States’ representation of Palestine. At last, it seems, society might have a socially acceptable narrative to tell the story of Palestinians alongside that of Israelis, Jewish Americans, Arab Americans, Black Americans, and others. Surveying Said’s legacy within the American university system, Brennan said Said opened the door to a new generation of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian scholars. Without this sea change of the American upper-middle class, it’s difficult to imagine U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib—sporting a keffiyeh no less—denouncing U.S. support for “Israel’s apartheid government” from the floor of Congress.

A graduate student of Said’s at Columbia University, Brennan deftly traced his former mentor’s maneuvering through the American academy, but he stumbled with Middle Eastern politics. Brennan seemed to give more credit than due to Said as an important go-between for Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the U.S. State Department. Instances like Said’s invitation to consult with the Reagan administration over the Palestinian “problem” were often measures of how the United States refused to take the Palestinians seriously rather than their esteem for Said’s political influence with PLO leadership; wherever they happened to be in exile, Israel preferred Washington not deal directly with them. Brennan also refrained from a serious critique of Said’s views on Arab politics and letters—or his dislike of Beirut’s intellectual life—even when these views carried the imprint of personal grievances or his émigré life in the United States.

Edward Said portrait

Edward Said speaks during the 2001 PEN Lecture at The Apollo Theater in London on Dec. 5, 2001. Yui Mok/PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

In his own time, many of Said’s most virulent critics came from the American liberal establishment like the New Republic, where U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken got his start as a reporter in the 1980s and where Beinart later preached liberal Zionism before his recent crisis of faith. Today, the New Republic runs columns excoriating the White House for ignoring the “Palestinian struggle.” But Beinart’s conversion or Tlaib’s speech in Congress shouldn’t give the illusion of any impending and dramatic shift in U.S. support for Israel, which has the rare distinction of general bipartisan consensus in Washington.

As Said and other scholars of his generation argued, some ideas are invested with authority or legitimacy only because of the discourses of power that evince them. Of and in itself, the “peace process” has ceased to mean very much. But the U.S. State Department is still peddling “bilateral negotiations,” a “two-state solution,” and almost always leading with “Israel’s right to defense” while sagely forewarning that the present moment isn’t quite right for a final settlement of the “conflict.” The White House is seeking to “manage” (the key word of the moment, according to former U.S. peace processer Martin Indyk) a deeply historical war with temporary cease-fires. Said took aim at this disregard for history with his critiques of U.S. media, foreign policy, and national politics—and it was this sensitivity toward the ineluctable inventory of history that made his criticisms so very convincing.

“History has no mercy,” Said wrote in The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. “There are no laws in it against suffering and cruelty, no internal balance that restores a people much sinned against to their rightful place in the world.” This shouldn’t be misread as a message of hopelessness. Said as a writer wasn’t a sentimentalist but followed the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci’s maxim: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Today, there isn’t much left to do but parse Said’s writings on the so-called “peace process” and ask what can be done differently.

Amir-Hussein Radjy is a journalist and writer based in Cairo.

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