Ma’abara or tent camp for Jewish refugees in Ashkelon, 1950s
Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians should recognise Israel ‘as Jewish state’ and a Palestinian renunciation of their refugee ‘right of return’ – and thus recognition that two sets of refugees exchanged places in the Middle East – are two sides of the same coin. In her Huffington Post blog Lyn Julius argues the point with another blogger, academic Alon Ben Meir:
Even if Israel is negotiated back to the 1967 lines, will the Palestinians renounce their ‘right of return’? In a previous article, Ben Meir admits that the Palestinian demand to return to Israel proper is a major stumbling block to peace.
This issue cannot be brushed aside lightly as ‘rhetoric’. Not content
with getting a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, even
the ‘moderates’ of the Fatah camp have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Palestinians reserve the right to turn the Jewish state into a second
state of Palestine, by overwhelming it with millions of returning
refugees. The first act of such a Muslim majority-state would be to
repeal Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ which entitles Jews, wherever they may
be, to automatic Israeli citizenship.
In a 2011 poll 89.5 percent of Palestinians refused to renounce their ‘right of return’. More recently a Palestinian outcry forced Mahmoud Abbas to backtrack on his offer to an Israeli audience to renounce his personal’ right of return’ to Safed.
A peace deal foundered in 2000 not because of Israeli security
considerations, but because the Palestinians did not agree to the
principle that their refugees should be repatriated to a state of
Palestine. Their ‘right of return’ to Israel was non-negotiable.
That’s why Benjamin Netanyahu is right to make Palestinian recognition of Israel
as a Jewish state the quintessential issue. (PA negotiator Saeb
Erekat has said flippantly that Israel can call itself what it likes –
but does the Arab side accept Israel’s right to call itself what it
likes?) If successive Israeli governments did not insist on this point
in the past, it is because Netanyahu has realized that the much vaunted
‘two-state solution’ leaves room for ambiguity.
As far as the refugees are concerned, the Palestinian negotiators are
perceived to hold ‘the moral high ground’. Even Ben Meir sees the
Palestinian refugees as the main victims of an Israeli injustice. This
is a serious distortion.
The Arab refugees are the unintended consequence of a war the Arabs
failed to win against the nascent state of Israel in 1948. But it is
forgotten that the Arab League states waged a second war – a war they won easily – on their own defenseless Jewish citizens, whom they branded ‘the Jewish minority of Palestine’.
This domestic war against their Jews was not a mere backlash to
Israel – it was inspired by totalitarian Arab nationalism and by the
rise of Nazism. The Jews from Arab countries – now comprising half
Israel’s Jewish population with their descendants – were successfully
‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Middle East and North Africa. (Now it is
the turn of other minorities.)
It is time to recognize that the single largest group of refugees
created by the Arab-Israeli conflict was not Palestinian. Almost a
million Jews were driven out, not just from Jerusalem and the West Bank,
but Arab lands – their pre-Islamic communities destroyed. As a
matter of law and justice, recognition of their plight and compensation
for seized assets many times greaterthan
Palestinian losses must also be included on the peace agenda. Although
over 200,000 Jews were resettled in the West, two sets of refugees
exchanged places between Israel and the Arab world.
The parties to peace must recognize that the exchange is irrevocable.
Only by balancing the claims of rival sets of refugees might a deal be
struck: neither set should return to their countries of origin. Both
should be compensated through an international fund, as proposed by Bill
Clinton in 2000.
The absorption of the Jewish refugees into Israeli society should be
held up as a model for the assimilation of Palestinian refugees in their
host countries. The Jews are no longer refugees, Israel having granted
them full civil rights. Similarly the Arab side must take responsibility
for their own refugees.
Alon Ben Meir comes up with reasonable suggestions for a humanitarian
solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Here the Arab League is
central to a solution. Except in Jordan, Arab states still enforce a law
they passed in the 1950s banning Palestinian refugees from becoming
citizens in Arab countries. The refugees and their four million
descendants need to be granted full civil rights in their host
countries or in the Palestinian state. The agency perpetuating
Palestinians refugee status from generation to generation, UNWRA, must
be dismantled and Palestinians allowed to be absorbed in wider Arab
However good Ben Meir’s arguments, they are a projection of his own
decent values. The Palestinian leadership, in contrast, has shown a
consistent inclination to thwart a humanitarian solution by cynically
exploiting their people for political purposes. Currently there is no
incentive for them to change.
The Arab League must be brought in to talks on the refugee issue.
There must be international pressure for change – on the Palestinians.
While the main UN refugee agency UNHCR should take over the activities
of UNWRA, the US should condition the substantial sums it pours into the
Palestinian Authority’s coffers on Arab recognition of the exchange of
refugee populations – and insist on two states for two peoples.