Books: A land of make believe: In order to speak for the Palestinians, Edward Said had first to show they were real. His writings spike accepted 'facts' with inconvenient truth. But is his idealised vision of Palestine an impossible dream?

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The Independent Culture
WESTERN hopes for a settlement in the Middle East tend to follow a precarious route between intractable forces, between the looming facts of the situation. If the Israeli government can secure consensus, if Arafat can deliver his constituency, if no one jumps too high or breathes too loud, peace may come.

For Edward Said, this sense of a single chance at a happy ending, whose fragile agenda therefore must be followed, is just the latest in a long line of media-simplified false images. It improves on its predecessors, of course. It benefits from the recent Western discovery of sympathy for the Palestinians; once it is granted, as Western opinion largely does grant, that the Palestinians deserve a state (provided Israeli security can also be preserved), then the sanctimonious stupidity of Israeli policy becomes apparent. The unchecked river of cement flowing on to the West Bank spoils the Israelis' own best bargaining counter.

Said attributes the recent change in Western attitudes towards the Palestinians mostly to the intifada, that insistent spectacle of resistance. As stones flew in one direction and bullets in the other, the weakness of the Palestinians was displayed to the world for the first time. The terrorism was put in perspective. This shift in perception also owes much to the stubborn advocacy of a handful of commentators, including Said himself, who understand exactly how the Western media can make a difference in Palestine.

This bulky volume brings together 25 years'-worth of Edward Said's essays and interventions. The selection is somewhat strange: highly abstract (and surely obsolete) analyses of Kissinger-era geopolitics rub shoulders with snippety think-pieces for the Los Angeles Times. But the book allows us to explore both the force and the limitations of the author's public stand.

Said criticises our present variety of blinkeredness on the general grounds that one would expect from the author of Orientalism: namely, that it lacks historical context, and treats the region as a distant object for our gaze. But he also fiercely attacks our current emphasis on practical options, our persistent pronouncements about what can or cannot be done. Over the years, he has directed a stream of rebuttal and ridicule at glib solution-mongers. In 1989, for instance, he reviewed the luckless Thomas Friedman's 'how- to-do-it' book: 'Do this, he tells the Israelis; do this, he tells the Palestinians; do this, he tells the Americans . . .' Friedman, he says, has 'internalised the norms, if not the powers, of the secretary of state'. What is wrong with this kind of approach, he argues, is that it involves mental surrender to a string of preconceptions. Policy works from givens, and the facts have so often been other than they seem: the 'fact' of Palestine's emptiness before the Zionists came, the 'fact' that the Arab population fled voluntarily in 1948.

Said has been labouring at his task since the aftermath of the 1967 war. As he explains in the miniature political autobiography that forms this book's introduction, his aim has been to think strategically, to decide how to proceed in the face of Israel's assumption of moral legitimacy - and of his own reputation as a spokesman for the unspeakable, a 'professor of terror'. He found himself not just speaking, but inventing the moral terms on which to speak; not just offering alternative opinions, but first having to insist that the people to whom those opinions related actually existed. 'My most specific task was . . . to make the case for Palestinian presence, to say that there was a Palestinian people and that, like all others, it had a history, a society and, most important, a right to self-determination.' Said's true subject (and rhetorical style) were set. The most successful writing here does indeed deal with identity rather than policy, being rather than doing.

Rarely in this collection does he approach his theme as directly, or as poetically, as in his earlier book, After the Last Sky. There, the Palestinian faces in Jean Mohr's photographs testify to lives continuing regardless of the inconvenience of statesmen, and Said's text asks: 'Do we exist?' There are fine essays here, though, such as 'Permission to Narrate' (1984), which tunnels under a mixed batch of topical political commentaries to show how cruelly hard it has been for Palestinians to tell their own story; how all the specialist branches of 'Middle Eastern studies' have failed to encompass the human facts of their experience: 'First we were there, now we are here. We did this, they did that. All the while, we thought about home.'

Edward Said makes some acute observations about the metaphysical meanings that Jews and Christians have ascribed to the geography of the Holy Land, which make Palestinian claims to the territory, based on a wish simply to live there, seem prosaic, unglamorous, 'perhaps humble'. Throughout, he has hammered away at the essential point of the contested histories of Israel and Palestine. Whatever you think of Israeli or Palestinian motives and behaviour, the truth remains that one side gained a country, the other had one taken away. By drawing attention to this incontrovertible (but somehow readily overlooked) imbalance, Said says he first intended simply to prove that the refugee founders of Israel, victims of the Holocaust, had victims of their own. Lately, he's used it to rebut descriptions of the situation as 'a tragedy' (because that suggests some blameless, fatal process at work), and, with stern singlemindedness, to point out the fundamental inequity of the recent negotiations. The Palestinians have been required to make renunciation after renunciation, compounding their original loss, without even the guarantee of a state as a reward. It is as if it were the responsibility of the beaten party in a fight to show the victor that it was safe to stop hitting him.

Objecting to Said's refusal of the current Western received wisdom, then, would take enormous temerity. There is passion in his cry: 'Are Palestinians to be ruled so totally by predetermined fact?' But his refusal has other aspects. The collection produces a puzzling effect of evasiveness. In concentrating his fire on issues which stand at a remove from policy, Said slackens his grip on calculations of probability. He seems not interested, in any straightforward way, in distinguishing between those 'facts' which merely project the ideology of the powerful, and the material constraints on the future that no agenda can escape (just as, in Orientalism, the ideology governing descriptions of the Orient was more important to him than the accuracy of their content).

Yet some truths surely impose themselves inescapably - those concerned with what Israelis and Palestinians want, can bear, will settle for. Said counts himself a realist. He argued for recognition of Israel, since it won't go away. But in 'An Ideology of Difference' (1985) he defines Zionism as intrinsically exclusive, racist, hostile to difference; whereas 'the Palestinian idea' embraces diversity, rejoices in difference, and aims at the happy cohabitation of Jews, Christians and Muslims. This argument breaches the laws of intellectual engagement by comparing the real Israel with an ideal, imaginary Palestine, setting nasty practice against shiny theory. Worse, though, is the essay's irrelevance: who cares if the PLO are (or were) ideally in favour of a binational secular state, where Jews would be welcome if they stopped being Zionists? It is doubtful that many Palestinians want to rejoice in diversity at this stage, and certain that few Israelis do.

That Said should treat this pipedream-Palestine as if it had practical status shows a startling degree of detachment, or innocence. For no bad or malicious reason, the world as Said interprets it cannot quite be believed in.

'The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994' is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)