Naseer Aruri, The Obstruction of Peace: The US, Israel and the Palestinians (Common Courage, 1995).

Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995).

“Palestine: Diplomacies of Defeat,” special issue of Race & Class 37/2 (October-December 1995).

Edward Said, Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996).

Graham Usher, Palestine in Crisis: The Struggle for Peace and Political Independence after Oslo (Pluto/Transnational Institute/MERIP, 1995).

The items reviewed here challenge the view that the Declaration of Principles (DOP), signed by Israel and the PLO in September 1993, initiated a “peace process” that will culminate in a stable and just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Most are published by small presses with limited marketing and distribution capacity. The electoral victory of Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud-led coalition may dispel some previously cherished illusions about the ultimate consequences of the DOP, but the intellectual and political courage of these authors for articulating a prompt and forceful criticism of conventional wisdom merits recognition.

Graham Usher’s Palestine in Crisis, co-published by the Transnational Institute and MERIP, provides a comprehensive survey of developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli DOP. One of the most knowledgeable journalists writing in English about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Usher’s credentials include several years of duty as the only Western correspondent resident in the Gaza Strip before moving to his current base in Jerusalem. Palestine in Crisis surveys the salient markers of the first 18 months of the “peace process”: Baruch Goldstein’s cold-blooded murder of 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on February 25, 1994; the Protocol on Economic Relations between Israel and the PLO of April 29, 1994; the Cairo agreement of May 4, 1994; Yasser Arafat’s arrival and the installation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza and Jericho on July 1, 1994; the clash between Hamas and the PLO and the shooting of 13 Palestinians by the PA’s Preventive Security Apparatus in Gaza on November 18, 1994; and the February 1995 establishment of military courts by the PA to try political suspects. A major strength of Palestine in Crisis is the space devoted to the voices of Palestinian nationalist critics of the DOP who remain committed to a two-state solution to the conflict, such as Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, who argues that:

The critical issue is transforming our society…. The important thing is for us to take care of our internal situation and correct those negative aspects from which it has been suffering for generations and which is the main reason for our losses against our foes (p. 82).

The US is the ultimate guarantor of both the continuation of the “peace process” and the imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians. Naseer Aruri’s The Obstruction of Peace appropriately argues that US Middle East policy has consistently aspired to marginalize the Palestinian question and that the DOP represents the attainment of that objective (pp. 21- 23, 111 ff). The Obstruction of Peace critically reviews US foreign policy from the Gulf war to the Cairo accords. As one of the two Palestinian-American members of the Palestine National Council, Aruri’s criticisms of the DOP reflect a broad current of opinion among diaspora Palestinians whose issues, such as the right to return, are excluded from the agenda of the DOP.

Aruri is properly skeptical about the future of the “peace process.” But his argument that the flaws of the DOP are due to its avoidance of fundamental criticism of Zionist practices is overstated. According to Aruri, “Any forward movement beyond the ‘Gaza-Jericho First’ formula would require a genuine debate of Zionist history in which the difficult questions, submerged since 1948, would be raised” (p. 353).

These questions have been raised by Israeli intellectuals during the last decade, especially the “new historians.” Many now acknowledge that Zionism was, at least in part, a settler-colonial project replete with racist practices. Twenty-five years ago assertion of the existence of a Palestinian people was a bold political innovation. Debate now centers on the form which Palestinian political expression will take. A self-proclaimed “post-Zionist” school of thought has emerged, and its proponents write regularly in the Hebrew press.

Nonetheless, the political consequences of this intellectual reassessment have been limited. Azmi Bishara’s new party, al-Tajammu‘, has raised the demand for cultural autonomy for Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, and non-Zionists have long advocated that Israel should become a state of its citizens. But for the vast majority of Israeli Jews the concept of a “Jewish state” remains sacrosanct despite its undemocratic implications. The deeply Eurocentric assumptions of most Israeli Jewish intellectuals prevent all but a tiny minority from considering living with Palestinian Arabs as equals.

Continued Israeli repression and the Palestinians’ inability to turn the intifada into permanent political gains have limited the impact of the critique of Zionism by the new Israeli historians and others. In any case, the kind of ideology critique that Aruri advocates is rarely a primary cause of historical change. Israel is now recognized as a permanent fixture in the Middle East by many of its former Arab adversaries, not because they accept the justice of Zionism, but because they believe that in a unipolar world in which the US-Israeli alliance dominates the regional balance of forces, their interests require it.

Norman Finkelstein takes up Aruri’s call for ideology critique in Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict — a series of polemics against Zionist historical scholarship. Finkelstein first gained public attention with his meticulous rebuttal of Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial — a spurious fraud claiming that many of the over 700,000 Arabs who resided in the part of Palestine that became Israel in 1947-1949 were recent immigrants attracted by economic opportunities created by Zionist settlement. Image and Reality expands this project into a comprehensive critique of the Zionist premises of Israeli historical writing, a useful intellectual exercise despite its marginal political utility in the current circumstances. Finkelstein’s close readings of Zionist texts reveal inconsistencies in argumentation, contradictions in evaluating evidence and ideologically motivated bias.

The exposure of Peters’ deception occupies a chapter in this volume along with similar ripostes against Yosef Gorny’s Zionism and the Arabs, 1882-1948, Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Anita Shapira’s Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 and several of Abba Eban’s works. Some may be surprised to find Benny Morris in this company, but Finkelstein effectively demonstrates that Morris is as reluctant to embrace the full import of his historical evidence as those who have been much more timid about challenging the labor Zionist historical consensus. The most original and interesting chapters of Image and Reality are the final two, which go beyond ideology critique and offer new interpretations of the origins of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars supported by broad reading in secondary works and archival research in UN documents.

Edward Said’s reputation as a cultural critic and the leading spokesperson for Palestinian rights in the US renders his writings highly marketable despite his steadfast rejection of the “peace process.” Said is justifiably outraged that the DOP has received widespread uncritical acclaim. The essays in Peace and its Discontents, written from September 1993 to October 1995, constitute an archival record of Said’s responses to the unfolding events and therefore have a certain historical value. As political analysis, however, they are disappointing.

Said treats politics as primarily a matter of resolute will or rhetorical skill rather than a struggle bounded by a concrete balance of forces. “The Arabs have simply lost the will to resist” (p. xxv), he concludes. The current situation is “largely due to the technical incompetence of the PLO” (p. 16). Glossing over the PLO’s political failures, Said proffers a highly sanitized history of the PLO as having been “until the last couple of years…fairly democratic” (p. 6). Somewhat contradictorily, he believes that the DOP makes it clear that the PLO leadership had a capitulationist strategy “from the beginning” (p. 37).

Said contends that the Oslo agreement has emptied the Palestinian revolution of its status as an international cause (p. 57), a conclusion that requires him to overlook unpleasant aspects of PLO history such as Arafat’s embrace of Saddam Hussein; the corruption of PLO operatives in Beirut and their domineering practices in southern Lebanon; and repeated equivocation on the legitimacy of attacking unarmed civilians. Said is certainly aware of these issues because as a member of the Palestine National Council from 1977 to 1991 he had an exemplary record of publicly criticizing the PLO for its lapses in these areas. Elsewhere, he admits that by the mid-1970s, PLO politics in Beirut had become “a trivial copy” of “conventional Arab politics” (p. 83).

Regrettably, for the last 30 years, more than a few people have supported Palestinian self-determination not because of but despite the actions of the national community’s quick embrace of any semblance of a “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite the egregious injustices inherent in the Oslo accords.

Said’s unwillingness to consider the possibility that the weaknesses of the PLO may have long-term political consequences results in political equivocation, most clearly revealed in his suggestion that he might have erred in voting to recognize Israel at the 1988 PNC meeting in Algiers (p. 176). This is a matter of fundamental principle in which consistency and clarity are absolutely essential. As Said himself wrote in 1989, “The [Palestinian] declaration of statehood spelled out principles of equality, mutuality and social justice far in advance of anything in the region.“ [1] Although the Zionists committed many crimes along the way, there are now two peoples in Israel-Palestine. A political program that fails to acknowledge this lacks moral credibility and has little chance of realization.

Several of the contributions to ‘Palestine: Diplomacies of Defeat,’ a special issue of Race & Class, guest edited by Rema Hammami and Graham Usher, offer unvarnished reassessments of the PLO’s path to Oslo. Jamil Hilal’s “The PLO: Crisis in Legitimacy” is one of the strongest essays in the volume. He argues that the political strategy of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict adopted at the 1988 PNC “was not anchored in the organizational reforms needed for the revitalization of…[the PLO’s] institutions” (p. 5). According to Hilal, the PLO leadership, “failed to rise to the challenges raised by the intifada…and lacked the will to respond adequately” because of its leadership style, Israeli repression, and unfavorable international and regional changes.

Rema Hammami’s insightful essay, “NGOs: The Professionalization of Politics,” expands Hilal’s argument. She analyzes “the ideological and institutional transformation of the mass movement in the occupied territories in the 1990s” (p. 52) from a model of mass mobilization and political transformation to “human resource development” based in “training centers” led by technical specialists. This mass movement, led by the Palestinian left “inside,” emerged because “the PLO ‘outside’ had, following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, become bureaucratized and ineffective” (p. 53). In the 1990s this movement declined due to factionalism and the corrosive effects of international funding and professionalism on grassroots projects.

Azmi Bishara also builds on Jamil Hilal’s assessment in a chilling interview with Graham Usher suggesting the alternatives of “bantustanisation or binationalism.” The PLO and its factions “were often corrupt, always undemocratic,” says Bishara (p. 46). He urges leftist critics of the Oslo agreement “to admit that they too were complicit in a structure of politics that led to Oslo no less than Arafat,” a comment that might be directed at both Naseer Aruri and Edward Said. Bishara rejects the slogan “down with Oslo.“ “The question now is not ‘Oslo: yes or no?’ The question rather is ‘Oslo, now what?’” (p. 47). Usher also interviewed Ilan Pappe, one of the sharpest critics of the DOP among Israeli intellectuals. Pappe, agrees with Bishara that the Oslo agreement is an established fact: “The chief significance, and probably the only genuinely irreversible part of Oslo, is the mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel” (p. 19). Pappe also insists, contrary to Edward Said, that Oslo is an Israeli, rather than a US formula. Embodying the consensus position of both Labor and the Likud, it is designed to avoid raising the issues raised by the 1948 war (pp. 20-21). But Pappe regards it as containing the potential of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but not because the Israeli architects of Oslo want it to be. But rather because, despite their best efforts, Oslo is raising all those issues of 1948 — statehood, return of the refugees, Jerusalem — that it was designed to avoid (p. 22).

The advent of a Likud government casts a long shadow over this assessment. There is, however, a common thread running through the views of Israelis like Pappe, and Palestinians like Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, Jamil Hilal and Azmi Bishara. They recognize the injustice of the DOP while acknowledging that it has irreversibly altered the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The principle that Palestinian Arabs are a nation with political rights has attained universal international legitimacy. This is not a small feat; neither is it the end of history. The future of Palestine and the relations between Israelis and Palestinians will be determined by continuing to struggle within in the new circumstances.


[1] Edward Said, “Intifada and Independence,” in Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 17.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict After Oslo," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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