In the case of Palestinians, the role played by intellectuals in the peace process is not cut and dry. On the one hand, Palestinian academics are not organized in such a manner as to enable a clear definition of their positions and contributions. On the other, intellectuals have played oddly contradicting roles during the different phases of the peace process.
To offer some background, in the eyes of the average Palestinian, intellectuals form one of the most credible sectors of society. In a survey carried out in the early 1990s, university lecturers came in first in the public’s response to a question concerning which sector of society was most trustworthy. Intellectuals in Palestine have also played a significant role in initiating and leading political parties and political initiatives. These reasons likely explain why, when the Palestine Liberation Organization elected to take part in peace talks with Israel--a very controversial decision at that time--the Palestinian leadership made a point of including a majority of intellectuals in the Palestinian negotiating delegation to the Madrid conference and subsequent Washington talks. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the delegates were university academics and policy specialists.
At that time, some analysts explained this phenomenon by saying that those who selected the delegates were trying to lend the talks credibility and public support. Take, for example, highly-respected physician Haidar Abdel Shafi, Birzeit University professor Hanan Ashrawi and An Najah University politics professor Saeb Erekat, all of whom represented Palestinians in the earliest days of the peace process.
Despite this interplay, Palestinian intellectuals have never managed to actively influence the official decision-making process, particularly in times of crisis. Just several years after the Madrid conference and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, academics were among those in society most hostile to the peace process and to the Palestinian Authority that resulted from this process. Polls showed that the Palestinian educated classes were highly opposed to the Oslo process. That opposition never translated, however, into political engagement or the ability to change the course of events. In Palestinians’ first democratic and free elections intellectuals did not fare well at all as they jockeyed for positions in the parliament. Career politicians, on the other hand, particularly those PLO symbols that hailed from the Palestinian Diaspora, were very successful in that same vote.
It might be said that while intellectuals have been "used" in this peace process in a positive sense (i.e., by politicians to give the peace process credibility and convince the public) they have never played a significant role in conducting the peace process, determining its course, or even building the positions that the leadership has adopted in negotiations. Despite the many instances of intellectual engagement in "track-two" activities, and despite the multiplicity of initiatives coming from Palestinian thinkers and sometimes Palestinians and Israelis in cooperation, historically these initiatives have proven ineffectual and insignificant.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons. He is also minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
It is virtually impossible to assess in real time the role of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals in influencing the course of events between the two peoples. We need the benefit of perspective in order to understand the intellectuals' impact, or lack thereof, on any given issue. Yet even with perspective the task is difficult.
Suppose, for example, that an idea floated by a group of Israeli academics is adopted five or ten years later by the government of the day, which claims that it arrived at the idea as a consequence of its own analysis of key recent events. Obviously, no one can prove a cause and effect relationship. Israeli intellectuals, generally free of any governmental constraints on their freedom of expression, almost always also operate independently of governmental sponsorship or patronage, hence cannot easily gauge their own influence. They can only disseminate their ideas and hope they percolate through to the top, either directly or via public opinion.
This issue was a frequent preoccupation when I was at the Jaffee Center during the 1980s and early 1990s. Much of our research and writing was devoted to the Arab-Israel conflict and the possibilities of peace with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. We felt confident that the ideas we disseminated were exercising influence on the decision-making echelon, but there was absolutely no way to prove it unless the politicians themselves acknowledged this--which politicians, not only in Israel, rarely do.
Thus, for example, in 1989, at the height of the first intifada, we published a comprehensive and systematic study on Israel's options for a Palestinian settlement. It concluded with a recommendation that the government give serious consideration to dealing directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and not reject the possibility that a political process would eventuate in a Palestinian state. While we were not the first to propose these ideas, we were probably the most mainstream, and our recommendations were rooted in solid research and analysis. We also found funding to disseminate our conclusions widely, and the media gave them broad coverage.
Prime Minister Shamir's angry reaction to our conclusions at the time seemed to us only to confirm that we had struck a blow for better understanding of the decisions facing the country. (There were also, incidentally, voices within the university that objected to our academic foray into "politics".) Today our conclusions are at least rhetorically the foundation for the approach of yet another right wing prime minister. Yet I have little doubt that Ariel Sharon would testify that his approach derives, not from academic research, but from a vast array of realpolitik considerations.
Currently, one key area in which Israeli intellectuals are playing a leading role concerns the demographic consequences of ongoing occupation or even of the absence of a negotiated two state settlement. In recent years, demographers and geographers, some with a right wing orientation, have published research urging a very far-reaching Israeli approach to territorial compromise, in order to ensure the future Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Elements of this analysis appear to have found their way into mainstream political discourse--but not yet into decision-making.
Viewed from the Israeli side of the conflict, Palestinian intellectuals seem to face a different set of considerations. To a large extent they see themselves as part of a patriotic struggle for independence, hence subject to certain agreed narratives (e.g., "the 1967 lines") that have no parallel on the Israeli side. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership exercises pressures to conform to these assumptions. Still, despite what appears to be a lesser degree of independence, by Arab standards Palestinian intellectuals seem to be relatively free to express themselves. And within their self-imposed or externally-imposed constraints, some do appear to exercise influence over decision-making.
One striking example of the niche carved out for themselves by Palestinian intellectuals under sometimes difficult circumstances is polling. Palestine has freer and more comprehensive opinion polls than any Arab country. Yasir Arafat was, to say the least, not pleased with his popularity ratings when they began to surface in opinion polls. Yet he undoubtedly follows them closely--as do Israeli security circles, which have confidence in their credibility. Another area where Palestinian intellectuals have clearly exercised influence concerns governmental reform and the campaign against corruption.
Perhaps the most striking example of Palestinian intellectual independence is Prof. Sari Nusseibeh's advocacy of abandoning the demand for a "right of return" to Israel. He has been able to advocate his position--which constitutes a far-reaching challenge to a seemingly sacred tenet of the Palestinian struggle--without too many constraints. And while he appears to have few Palestinian followers, i.e., exercises little immediate influence, the long-term effects of his campaign can only be speculated upon. Nor can we ignore the courage mustered by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas--a politician and an intellectual--in unequivocally condemning Palestinian terrorism.
Over the years, when Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals have met in informal discussions of the conflict and its solutions, there have usually been far more diversity and more soul-searching among the views presented by Israelis than by Palestinians. Indeed, many of the latter frequently "coordinate" their participation with the Palestinian powers-that-be. The Israelis undoubtedly have more independence; but in some cases the Palestinians may have more influence.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
I was astounded by the subject of this issue of bitterlemons, i.e. the role of intellectuals in the peace process. My gut reaction was to decline and abstain from writing the essay. In fact, the topic is filled with hypothetical assumptions, which I believe cannot be used as valid bases for exploring the subject. It is impossible to attain a procedural definition of this issue and discuss it according to specific criteria.
However, once I thought the matter through, I decided to wonder about the issue, rather than discuss it. The reason I accepted after my initial hesitation was the need to explore the concept that a specific role for intellectuals actually exists, not only in the political process, but also in other areas. Do intellectuals have a specific, predefined function that they should be aware of and act out as one solid bloc?
If the hidden pretension underlying my question is "yes"--i.e. that such a role actually exists--this undoubtedly leads us to a series of questions that must be answered clearly, in order to be able to define the subject: Who is the intellectual? What makes he or she one? Should the intellectual define him or herself or be defined as such? Do intellectuals form a specific, clearly defined and integral social category? Do they need to have unified principles, visions and modus operandi? Do they need to have their own positions, independent from those of their societies?
I am of the mind that the term "intellectual" is a vague concept, although it might include some common general characteristics. My "intellectual" may not be considered as such by someone else, because the matter is purely subjective. The definition is beholden more to personal evaluation than to objective standardization. (Is everyone holding a university degree considered an intellectual?) Intellectuals do not constitute a special social category. They are an integral part of the social fabric. Some of them come from underprivileged classes while others are clearly upper-class. Some are secular, others deeply religious. Some are right-wingers, others leftists. Some are progressives, others conservative. Some are rural, still others city-dwellers, and so on. Hence, intellectuals do not share unified principles, visions and modus operandi. Neither they, nor their beliefs, may be squeezed together, and pointed in one singular direction. On the contrary, because they are an integral part of the social fabric, they reflect a wide variety of principles, visions, and tendencies.
Indeed, because they are intellectuals, their trademark is one of conflicting positions. Consequently, there is no such thing as a singular "point on the compass" for the actions of intellectuals, and it is impossible to issue a judgment on which trend is better than another. Heterogeneity--and not homogeneity--being the basic factor affecting the positions of those we call "intellectuals", the principle that rules their differences is the multiplicity and variety of their interests. Each intellectual, in his or her capacity as a member of society, has interests that might correlate with, or work against, the interests of others. Thus, achieving these interests is what guides the "intellectual’s" course of action.
If the above is true, then there is no basis for this subject that I was asked to write about--unless it is in someone’s interest to direct the role of intellectuals in a given direction. This way, intellectuals might be encouraged to adopt a so-called "positive role" in pushing the peace process forward! If this is truly the motive, it reduces the intellectuals’ breadth of variety. It also introduces a value judgment categorizing intellectuals as "those who are with" and "those who are against." Intellectuals that believe in the process will be deemed "good intellectuals." But those who have reservations about, or are expressly opposed to the process will be labeled "bad intellectuals," if they are lucky. In fact, they may be ousted from the intellectuals’ list and--in this world of "those who are not with us are against us"--squeezed onto the list of agitators or even terrorists.
There are intellectuals whose interests lie with the political process, who use their position in a variety of roles to support that process. By doing so, they not only express their position, but that of all social groups that see their own interests advanced by the political process. On the other hand, there are also skeptics, or those who oppose the process, and whose positions are consequently at odds with those parties who disagree. In this way, intellectuals, be they pro- or anti-settlement, do have a role to play.
But if we truly believe in democracy, it is the people’s choice that must prevail. What we really need to know is who will convince the majority of the righteousness of his or her position--not who will seek to impose his or her beliefs on others.
Ali Jarbawi is a political science professor at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Critical and organic intellectuals: Israelis and Palestinians
by Shlomo Avineri
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once made the distinction between what he called “critical” and “organic” intellectuals. Critical intellectuals are typical of developed civil societies, in which intellectuals view themselves as critics of power and as generally being non-conformists; organic intellectuals are more prevalent in societies in which individual moral responsibility is not highly developed, and intellectuals see themselves in the role of spokesmen for a collective identity. The latter frequently appear in societies still in the throes of nationalism.
This distinction may be helpful in assessing the role of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals in their respective societies: it may also explain why so many attempts at “dialogue” between intellectuals from both societies have frequently been disappointing.
Most Israeli intellectuals--writers, academics, artists--view themselves as the moral critics of their own society, standing in the prophetic tradition of "speaking truth to power"--to the power of their own society. Hence the Israeli press--and Israeli literature--are full of intellectuals and writers viewing their own society--its politics, its government, its dominant myths and narratives--through critical lenses: Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman are just three of the more prominent writers who represent this critical vein in the Israeli intellectual discourse. Most of them view themselves as good Israeli patriots in a generalized sense, but they do not shy away from criticizing--in newspaper articles, books and media interviews at home and abroad--Israeli policies or some of the dominant Israeli myths. There are obviously exceptions, but this critical role is true of most Israeli intellectuals. Just read Ha’aretz.
Most Palestinian--and Arab--intellectuals view their role differently: not as a vehicle for criticism of their society and its dominant values, narratives and myths, but on the contrary: as the true bearers of Palestinian (or Arab) nationalism. It is for this reason, for example, that the most radical criticism in Egypt or Jordan of the peace treaties with Israel has come from intellectual circles. For them, any accommodation with Israel, let alone Zionism, is a breach of faith, if not outright treason. These intellectuals may be Nasserists, former communists or Islamic radicals; but they are indubitably intellectuals. Few are the intellectuals in the Palestinian or Arab community in general who dare to speak truth to power, or question the basic narratives of Arabism: what has happened in the last years to perhaps the one truly critical Egyptian intellectual, Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim, or earlier to Sadiq Jalal al-Azm in Syria, just shows how rare are the cases of such nonconformist intellectuals in the Arab world.
This of course has far-reaching consequences for the general weakness of civil society and democracy in the Arab world.
It is this discrepancy between the self-images of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals which makes the encounter between the two groups so futile. In the dozens and hundreds of recent Israeli-Palestinian dialogues, a familiar pattern emerges: the Israeli intellectuals usually appear, in various degrees, critical of their own government’s policies, occasionally also of some basic tenets of Zionism; the Palestinian intellectuals, on the other hand, repeat the Palestinian narrative, criticize Israel--its policies, sometimes its very existence. Hardly ever does one hear a Palestinian intellectual question Palestinian policies, let alone the Palestinian master narrative. If there is criticism of the Palestinian Authority, it is that it is too accommodating to Israel, or that it is corrupt--the latter being a merely generalized accusation. Israeli universities hold dozens of conferences, in many cases with Palestinian participants, in which various degrees of criticism of Israel are voiced. Hardly anything similar can be seen in Palestinian or Arab universities.
It is because of this symmetry that so many Israeli-Palestinian dialogues became so one-sided--with both sides criticizing Israel. It is for this reason that some Israelis have found these dialogues a sham and an exercise in futility.
It is difficult to accept the claim that as long as Palestinians are under occupation they cannot appear to be "disloyal” to their national narrative: Arab countries are not under occupation, and the lack of critical intellectuals in all of them is glaring--compared, for example, to the courageous appearance of many critical intellectuals in contemporary Iran. And in the Israeli case, critical intellectuals appeared in the pre-1948 Jewish community, in the excruciating debate about whether to use terrorist methods against the British.
Will this discrepancy between the disparate self-declared roles of intellectuals in these two societies change? I don’t know. Yet the appearance of the UNDP Arab Human Development Report, written mostly by Arab intellectuals, is a meaningful and hopeful harbinger of the possibilities of a fundamental change.
Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his books are The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx and The Making of Modern Zionism.
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