AS the Middle East peace process lurches and halts along a twisty path, it helps to have an experienced guide, someone who has surveyed this ever-changing path for years. Edward Said is such a guide.
But this is the Middle East, after all, and guides are likely to have wildly varying interpretations of the scenery. Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University, has long been an articulate spokesman for the Palestinian cause. He is a member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), a representative body that used to figure significantly in Palestinian politics and may or may not have a role to play in the present task of shaping peace with Israel. In one of many departures from the PLO line, Said strongly feels the PNC should be involved, in order to bring a grain of democratic legitimacy to what he views as a process gone awry.
There's no hedging of opinions in ``The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969- 1994.'' Said's criticisms of Israel as a ruthless occupying power, of the US as an arms-toting peacemaker blinded by reflexive allegiance to Israel and its own imperialist ego, and of flawed Arab leadership - including the PLO's - are unsparing.
Above all, this compilation of Said's op-ed pieces, scholarly writings on the Mideast, and interviews of the past quarter century reveals an impressive intellect striving to put before readers a point of view - a reasoned Palestinian one - that most Americans have little access to.
Reasoned, yes, but not dispassionate. The anger bubbles beneath Said's words - and nowhere more so than when the subject is the blanket dismissal of Palestinians as terrorists. ``Although Israel's army is responsible for the destruction of Palestinian society, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the deaths of many thousands more, all resistance to it is considered terrorism - because Israel and the United States say so,'' Said wrote in a 1985 New York Times op-ed. American narrow-mindedness is another hot button. ``In the United States the Arab world has no cultural status at all; the few images of the Arabs that circulate are essentially negative and frightening, images such as those of terrorism, fundamentalism, and so on,'' he wrote in 1991.
But Said's anger, with roots back to the scattering of his family after the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, is balanced by a steady-eyed pragmatism. He recognizes that peaceful coexistence with Israel is the only intelligent option - a position, he says, the PNC and mainstream of the PLO have held for more than a decade.
Said's writing, often elegant, can also climb toward scholarly complexity. There are polemics aplenty, and intricately argued critiques of the works of other observers of the Middle East, such as Noam Chomsky and Thomas Friedman. There's also material that is touching and human such as Said's description of his return to ``Palestine-Israel'' in 1992 after an absence of 26 years.
Overall, this book provides pretty good guidance - from one crucial point of view - on how the Middle East arrived at its present juncture. Said is not at all pleased with that juncture. He believes the PLO has given up far too much for the opportunity of sitting down with its adversaries and talking peace. Quite a few Israelis, of course, would say the same about their government.