NEW YORK - Misreported and hopelessly flawed from the start, the Oslo peace process has entered its terminal phase -- one of violent confrontation, disproportionate Israeli repression, widespread Palestinian rebellion and great loss of life, the vast majority of it Palestinian.
The Sept. 28 visit to Haram al Sharif (the Temple Mount for Jews) by the leader of the Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, could not have occurred without Prime Minister Ehud Barak's concurrence. How else could the paunchy old war criminal have appeared there with a thousand soldiers guarding him? Barak's approval rating rose from 20 percent to 50 percent after the visit, and the stage seems set for a national unity government ready to be still more violent and repressive.
The portents of this disarray, however, were there from the start, as duly noted in the Winter 1993 issue of Lettre International. Labor and Likud leaders alike made it no secret that Oslo was designed to segregate the Palestinians in noncontiguous enclaves surrounded by Israeli-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads punctuating and essentially violating the territories' integrity; with expropriations and house demolitions proceeding inexorably through the administrations of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak along with the expansion and multiplication of settlements (200,000 Israeli Jews added to Jerusalem, 200,000 more in Gaza and the West Bank); with continued military occupation; and with every tiny step taken toward Palestinian sovereignty -- including agreements to withdraw in miniscule, agreed-upon phases -- stymied, delayed, canceled at Israel's will.
This method was politically and strategically absurd, even suicidal. Occupied East Jerusalem was placed out of bounds by a bellicose Israeli campaign to decree the intractably divided city off limits to Palestinians and to claim it as Israel's "eternal, undivided capital." The 4 million Palestinian refugees -- now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere -- were told that they could forget about any idea of return or compensation.
With his own corrupt and stupidly repressive regime supported both by Israeli intelligence and the CIA, Yasser Arafat continued to rely on U.S. mediation, even though the U.S. peace team was dominated by former Israeli lobby officials and a president whose ideas about the Middle East were those of a Christian fundamentalist Zionist with no exposure to or understanding of the Arab-Islamic world.
Compliant, but isolated and unpopular Arab chiefs (especially Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) were compelled humiliatingly to toe the American line, thereby further diminishing their eroded credibility at home. Israel's priorities were always put first, as was its bottomless insecurity and its preposterous demands. No attempt was made to address the fundamental injustice done when Palestinians as a people were dispossessed in 1948.
Behind the peace process were two unchanging Israeli and American presuppositions, both of them derived from a startling incomprehension of reality. The first was that Palestinians, given enough punishment and beating over the years since 1948, would ultimately give up, accept the compromised compromises Arafat accepted and call the whole Palestinian cause off, thereby excusing Israel for everything it has done.
Thus, for example, the peace process gave no considered attention to immense Palestinian loss of land and goods, none to the links between past dislocation and present statelessness, while Israel, a nuclear power with a formidable military, nevertheless continued to claim the status of victim and demand restitution for genocidal anti-semitism in Europe. Incongruously then, there has still been no official acknowledgement of Israel's (now amply documented) responsibility for the tragedy of 1948, even though the United States went to war in Iraq and Kosovo on behalf of other refugees. One can't force people to forget, especially when the daily reality was seen by all Arabs as endlessly reproducing the original injustice.
Second, after seven years of steadily worsening economic and social conditions for Palestinians everywhere, Israeli and U.S. policymakers persisted (stupidly, I think) in trumpeting their successes, excluding the UN and other interested parties, bending the disgracefully partisan media to their wills, distorting the actuality into ephemeral victories for "peace." With the entire Arab world up in arms over Israeli helicopter gunships and heavy artillery demolishing Palestinian civilian buildings, with almost 100 fatalities and almost 2,000 wounded including many children, and with Palestinian Israelis up in arms against their treatment as third class non-Jewish citizens, the misaligned and skewed status quo is falling apart. Isolated in the UN and unloved everywhere in the Arab world as Israel's unconditional champion, the United States and its lame duck president have little to contribute any more.
Neither do Arab and Israeli leaders, even though they are likely to cobble together another interim agreement. Most shocking has been the total silence of the Zionist peace camp, in the United States, Europe and Israel. The slaughter of Palestinian youths goes on, and this band of supposed peace-lovers either backs Israeli brutality or expresses disappointment at Palestinian ingratitude.
Worst of all is the U.S. media, completely cowed by the Israeli lobby, with commentators and anchors spinning distorted reports about "crossfire" and "Palestinian violence" that eliminate the fact that Israel is in military occupation, and that Palestinians are fighting it, not "laying siege to Israel," as the ghastly U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it. While the United States celebrates the Serbian people's victory over their former president, Slobodan Milosevic. U.S. President Bill Clinton and his minions refuse to see the Palestinian insurgency as the same kind of struggle against injustice.
My guess is that some of the new Palestinian Intifada is directed at Arafat who has led his people astray with phony promises, and maintained a battery of corrupt officials holding down commercial monopolies even as they negotiate incompetently and weakly on his behalf. Sixty percent of the public budget is disbursed by Arafat to bureaucracy and security, only 2 percent to the infrastructure. Three years ago, his own accountants admitted to an annual $400 million in disappeared funds. His international patrons accept this in the name of the "peace process," certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today.
An alternative peace plan and leadership is slowly emerging among Israeli, West Bank, Gaza and diaspora Palestinians: It includes no return to the Oslo framework; no compromise on the original UN Resolutions (242, 338 and 194) mandating the Madrid Conference in 1991; removal of all settlements and military roads; evacuation of all the territories annexed or occupied in 1967; and a boycott of Israeli goods and services. A new sense may actually be dawning that only a mass movement against Israeli apartheid (similar to the South African variety) will work.
Certainly it is sheer idiocy for Barak and Albright to hold Arafat responsible for what he no longer fully controls. Rather than dismissing the new framework being proposed, Israel's supporters would be wise to remember that the question of Palestine concerns an entire people, not an aging and discredited leader. Besides, peace in Palestine-Israel can only be made between equals once the military occupation has ended. No Palestinian, not even Arafat, can really accept anything less.
Edward W. Said teaches theory of literature at Columbia University. He is a Christian Palestinian - the author of "The Question of Palestine".