BOOK REVIEW / Pirouettes of an ex-visionary: Robert Fisk considers Edward Said's admirable essays during a decisive week in Palestinian history

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The Independent Culture
I finished Edward Said's long and often brilliant series of essays in the Gaza Strip, on the very day of Yasser Arafat's 'return'. There could have been few more appropriate places - or suitable moments - to reflect upon Said's response to the increasingly elderly, pirouetting figure whom I had just watched driving past the Israeli troops who still occupy what he sees as his Palestine. In 1983, we find Arafat described by Said as a man of 'audacity' and 'vision'. In 1986, he was portraying him as 'a tragic and fascinating figure'. By December 1988, Arafat had secured 'his place in Palestinian and world history'. In 1991, Said admitted the PLO leader's 'foolish' position on Iraq. But by February of this year, Said's Yasser Arafat had become an 'elephant' who had misunderstood his own people by signing the 'Palestinian Versailles' of the Oslo peace accords, who had never been freely elected, whose 'bumbling officials' were corrupt, and who should be thanked for past services before stepping aside for a new generation.

Observing the muted Palestinian response to Arafat's arrival 'home', his flatulent speeches, the ominous silence of his Islamic opponents, the arrogance of his plain-clothes 'police' as they tried to control the men and women who fought the Israelis from within the occupied territories, Said's arguments appear devastating. The only wonder is that it took him so long to realise Arafat's essential inadequacy, the lack of intellectual depth in a man who could find nothing to replace youth and his fading charisma. That Said has not yet concluded that Israel made peace with Arafat because of this deterioration is probably due only to the delay which it has taken to get these essays published in book form.

Said is an American citizen, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, a one-time member of the Palestine National Council, a man whose assault on western 'orientalism', and its concommitant invitation to reduce all Arabs - indeed all Muslims - to a racial stereotype, may yet be hailed as a supreme academic achievement. Notwithstanding this, nor his repeated encouragement and praise for those fine Israelis who have sought a just settlement with the Palestinians, Said has been the object of a libel campaign in the United States and has endured virtual exclusion from mainstream American press and television coverage. That the finest of his essays have usually appeared in the US in the small- circulation 'alternative' press should be a matter of shame.

Merely to have argued the Palestinian case - against Israeli occupation and deportation, for example, or against the Israeli appropriation of more than 50 per cent of West Bank Arab land - has provoked vicious attacks by Israel's supporters, among the most disgraceful of which came in the Evening Standard last year when Milton Shulman suggested that Said might be called 'Professor of Terror' and should be forbidden to give the 1993 Reith lectures on the BBC. Benjamin Netanyahu (the Israeli UN ambassador, now leader of the opposition, Likud) refused to sit in the same television studio with Edward Said because, he claimed, Said 'wants to kill me'. If an Arab had made such an attack on a Jew, he would surely be condemned as anti-Semitic.

Since Said's moral arguments are so persuasive - and since his personal courage and integrity are so impressive - it is only fair to say that these essays are by no means always satisfying. If the intifada uprising was 'one of the great anticolonial insurrections of the modern period', where does that leave Algeria with its million dead in the 1954-62 war against the French? And despite his outright condemnation of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, there are times when Said's unwillingness to accept the full horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime is unacceptable. When he says that Iraq's government 'did very little for human rights' and that 'democracy does not really exist' there - what on earth does 'really' mean? - one feels acute embarrassment. Said refers to Iraq's well-documented gassing of the Kurds as 'a claim'. It was, after all, a US military report which once accused Iran of the mass gassing of Halabja; but that was when Saddam was America's ally. Surely no-one can believe this today.

And what is one to make of this: 'the risk for the Jewish people of a competing Palestinian nationalism, whose history is in its own way as severe in its traumas and sufferings as that of Jews, cannot therefore be lightly put aside . . .'? Such a comparison of suffering should not be made; Said knows this full well - which is why he uses the unhappy phrase 'in its own way'. What he means, and what he expresses far more eloquently (and accurately) in another essay, is that the Holocaust should not be used as an excuse - or accepted as an excuse - for Israeli brutality against Palestinians. 'How long can the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in particular,' he asks, 'be used as a fence to exempt Israel from arguments and sanctions against it for its behaviour toward the Palestinians, arguments and sanctions that were used against other repressive governments such as that of South Africa?'

There is a particular irony in the world's response to the Palestinian predicament, which Said understands. 'To be the victim of a victim does present quite unusual difficulties,' he says in the course of a discussion with Salman Rushdie. 'For if you are trying to deal with the classic victim of all time - the Jew and his or her movement - then to portray yourself as the victim of the Jew is a comedy worthy of one of your own novels.' Not just a comedy, one might add. As Said realises, to criticise Israel - however justifiably - or to report on those aspects of its behaviour which do not reflect well upon it, is to invite an immediate charge of anti-Semitism.

As a result, American journalists have long been supine in their reporting of the Middle East, their critical faculties largely suppressed for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism - ergo the modern- day equivalent of a Nazi propagandist. Men like Noam Chomsky, among the front rank of American academics, have been marginalised by journalists who willingly call upon Israeli 'experts' for comment on the dangers of 'international terrorism' - without reference either to the Palestinian dispossession or to the greatest individual act of terrorism in recent Middle East history, the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982 by Israel's Phalangist allies, whose own fascist origins in 1936 are, of course, never mentioned.

Said refers to 'the surprising ingenuity of unfairness in this most 'fair' of all societies' although there is, in truth, nothing very surprising about it. Said talks about the 'sleazy propaganda' and 'intellectually feeble' work of Bernard Lewis, the total submission of Hollywood to the Israeli cause - Exodus, according to Otto Preminger's Israeli friends did more for the Jewish state in its early years than almost any other outside support - and the sloppy scholarship of Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial which attempts to prove that Palestinian Arabs had arrived in Palestine just before 1948, and thus never really lived on the land. Leon Uris's The Hajj - in which, as Said rightly says, the Arab is portrayed as 'lecherous, deceitful, murderous, irrational larcenous . . . subhuman' - reads like a re-write of the worst Nazi tracts against the Jews.

So why the surprise? Elsewhere, Said has referred to the 'dictatorship of consensus' that covers so much of the American media, whose super-patriotism and bank of 'experts' has meant that foreign policy - particularly US support for Israel - goes unquestioned. Indeed, Israel is so inextricably linked with America that it has become unpatriotic for Americans to criticise Israel. As Said points out in the most important essay in his book, 'the notion that American military power might be used for malevolent purposes is relatively unthinkable within the consensus, just as the idea that America is a force for good in the world is routine and normal.' For the same reasons, Israel has to be regarded as a force for good - and thus any criticism of Israel has become, in effect, a criticism of the United States. To doubt the worth of the Arafat-Rabin 'peace' is to be 'against' peace and thus against America - and for 'terrorism' (that most outrageous of all words).

When people turn their newspaper articles into books, it suggests that the author has sensed his own mortality, that he wishes to ensure that his daily scribing is given immortality on the library shelf. In one article, Said refers to the leukaemia which struck him two years ago. There may be some who hope for his demise. Here is one humble reader who hopes that full recovery is in store for this very honourable man.

(Photograph omitted)