On his way to Beirut to a conference at the American University of Beirut, Edward Sa'id explained to L'orient le Jour [a Lebanese journal, which published the interview on July 5, 1999] the reasons for his condemnation of the Oslo process. Sa'id a leading American intellectual and literary critic of Palestinian origin, proposes "inventive" alternate paths, and "the only ones capable of leading to true reconciliation in the Middle East."
"Q: Why are you in such complete disagreement with Yasser Arafat?
Sa'id: He has accepted the unacceptable. After the Gulf War, finding himself on the losing side, he saw the peace process as the only way to save himself. He has become the Marshall Petain of the Israelis.
He is extremely brilliant when it comes to political strategy; he knows how to manipulate people. But he is not a leader, if you compare him to Nelson Mandela, for example. Despite his 27 years in prison, Mandela never gave up his demands. Arafat, on the other hand, has changed a thousand times. He lied to his people by talking to them about peace and at the same time accepting such horrible terms. Everyone knows the miserable truth about Oslo. Israel has maintained all of its power, control of borders, security, water, while the Palestinians in reality have only 3% of the land.
Q: Do you think he accepted all of that consciously? Was he not in fact simply too optimistic?
Sa'id: I think he did it perfectly consciously, as one very edifying anecdote proves. I was in Cairo in 1994, when the second part of the Oslo accords was signed. A friend of mine, who had participated in the negotiations, explained to me, horrified, that the discussions revolved around whether or not to put Arafat's head on a stamp! By the way, it is enough just to watch the way he governs the Palestinian Authority. He is an absolute tyrant. He established complete censorship over the media, he refuses to adopt a constitution. He developed a bureaucracy that absorbs 60% of the Authority's budget. He has succeeded, in a sense, in buying the silence of the population through employment: 140,000 work for the administration and security services, which doesn't at all prevent the situation of the Palestinians from deteriorating from day to day. Lands are being confiscated all the time without any resistance being organized. Another significant detail, the construction of Jewish settlements is being carried out by Palestinian workers. That is a crime! The Authority must create funds to aid these poor people instead of spending millions… on nice cars and villas.
Q: On the other hand, his authority is not really contested...
Sa'id: In my opinion, the Islamic opposition has been neutralized. Especially after the Wye Accords which have allowed any hostility towards the peace process to be considered a crime. I also believe that Arafat has succeeded in bringing the Islamists into his game. Neither is there resistance from the side of the nationalist bourgeoisie, as they were seduced by the possibility of conducting business and civil projects. One of the undeniable successes of the Oslo process has been to de-politicize the Palestinians, to subdue them. There are a few opposing voices left, like Haidar Abd Al-Shafi, but they are rare.
Q: You yourself broke with the PLO after having been a member of the Palestinian National Council [PNC] between 1970 and 1991.
Sa'id: As a Palestinian living in the United States, I have tried to explain American society and politics to people who had no idea, who were full of myths about America. On the other hand, I have written many articles, books, held many conferences trying to introduce the Palestinian question into the American media. But, I began to take my distance when, after 1988, the PLO reoriented its politics concerning the U.S. They had chosen to address the worst of American institutions and personalities. The other point of contention was the Gulf War. I consider it immoral, that a people who had been deported… should take the side of the occupiers of Kuwait. So I stepped down from the PNC. Then, perhaps because of my leukemia, I decided to return to Palestine after 45 years of absence. I saw the occupation, the Intifada, with my own eyes, and I compared this experience to the vision that the Palestinian leadership in Tunis took of the situation. All of this, coupled by the Oslo documents, convinced me that they had betrayed their people.
Q: But what means did they use? Power was not in their favor.
Sa’id: We have only the means of weak people. Since the 1970s I have been convinced that there is no armed solution. Unfortunately, our leaders opted for conventional means. They began with a fake war in Beirut which cost us, as well as the Lebanese, thousands of lives, in vain. Then they gave their people false hopes by accepting the Oslo process, which I am sure will just go on. They will begin to negotiate the last phase with Barak, but the discussions won't last. We cannot put our hope in the momentary arrangements effectuated by the political class in its own interest.
To end this stagnant situation, we must find freer, more creative, more inventive means. I am neither a soldier nor a statesman; I am speaking of a cultural battle, a spiritual dimension. Let us confront the Israelis with their history. This is a job already begun by Israeli historians themselves who are in the process of reconsidering Zionist myths. We must use the contradiction and dissent that exist in the heart of the Israeli population. More and more secular Jews are unhappy being tyrannized by a militant religious minority. They no longer want to live in a state which is different from other states, which is not the state of its citizens but of the Jewish people.
Q: The struggle has therefore shifted into the heart of Israel itself?
Sa'id: I am not among those who think we must refuse dialogue with the Israelis... When I confront Israelis, I try to speak to their conscience; I ask them to recognize their responsibility towards the Palestinians. Instead of this denial, this horrible silence always justified by the Holocaust, we must tear from them an acceptance of their historical responsibility. I am not sure that we will arrive, but it is the only way, symbolically, of conserving a worthy Palestinian identity and allowing for future coexistence with the Jews - which is exactly the opposite of what Arafat has done.
Q: Do you think the Israelis will renounce Zionism one day?
Sa'id: Some have begun to speak of it. I think that the most intelligent among them are in the process of realizing that, despite their incredible power, their situation is untenable. How much time can they stay in such perfect isolation?
In my opinion, the only real solution is a single-state solution, because it is impossible to redraw the partition of two peoples who are so intermingled and who in ten years will be equal in size. I wrote this in The New York Times and, to my great surprise, it is the article that, until now, has had the greatest positive response."