All Writings
September 28, 2003

A Tragic Strategy

No issue has complicated and frustrated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as has the problem of the Palestinian refugees and the question of their right of return. Unlike other critical issues that have obfuscated the conflict, such as the future of Jerusalem or the disposition of the settlements, the refugees have provided a daily reminder of Arab humiliation in the wars of 1948 and 1967. Their plight has also created a mindset in which the salvation of Arab national pride was seen as linked to their repatriation. Hence the paradox of prolonging their plight: It is the Palestinians' inability to reconcile what they consider their inherent right to return with the political reality of Israel's existence that has fanned the flames of nationalism.

For more than half a century, Arab leaders have poured oil over the Palestinian refugees' plight by refusing to resettle or compensate them. This strategy was designed to keep the problem on the international stage even though it has resulted in a continuing tragedy that defies every humane instinct of human behavior. Because of this misguided policy, three generations of Palestinians have been left to languish in subhuman conditions, living a life of squalor, consumed by hatred, entrapped in poverty, misery, and pain. Their own responsibility lies in believing the demagoguery of leaders who promised redemption–a return to their homes in Israel proper–when all these leaders delivered throughout this period was more of the same–inhuman conditions, pain, and disdain for the condition of the people. The refugee dilemma has actually worsened over time. According to the U.N., the refugee population grew from 1 million in 1950 to nearly 4 million today.

The decades' old argument as to who is responsible for the refugee problem has never been settled. To this day, both Israel and the Arab states trade charges, blaming each other for the disastrous events of 1948 and 1967. Whether the Arab states in 1948, as Israel claims, advised the Palestinians in repeated radio broadcasts to leave and return following Israel's defeat to collect the spoils of victory or whether Israel used the Palestinians' fear and confusion to encourage them to leave, as the Arabs claim, both sides are telling only part of the truth. Both are to blame for the tragic events of those days. But to endlessly rehash who did what and when is hardly relevant at this historical juncture. Because even if we establish who was the responsible party, it would not contribute anything at all to facilitating a solution.

To be sure, a solution cannot be found based on what is perceived to be right or wrong by either Israel or the Palestinians. The facts on the ground have changed irreversibly, the demographic realities of Israel and the Palestinians have changed vastly, as has the geopolitical dynamic of the region. The return of any significant number (say 2 million) of Palestinian refugees to Israel, in addition to the currently existing 1.2 million Palestinian-Israeli citizens, would create a Palestinian majority within 10 to 15 years. And this demographic fact would permanently alter the Jewish identity of the state and end Israel's political existence as we know it. Many Palestinians welcome such an outcome, for it could lead to a bi-national democratic state, with Israeli Jews and Palestinians living side-by-side. Perhaps not surprisingly, such a prospect remains totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Israelis whose country rose from the ashes of the Holocaust following a millennium of dispersions, expulsions, pogroms, and death.

Palestinians base their argument about the right of return on U.N. resolution 194, passed by the General Assembly in December 1948 affirming the right of the refugees to be repatriated to their homes. Although the resolution was not legally binding and merely set forth a standard by which Palestinians could make a plausible case for their return, what is critical here is that the repatriation of huge numbers of Palestinians is no longer a plausible option. As early as 1967, the U.N. recognized this by passing (in the security council) resolution 242. Resolution 242 simply called for "achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem." The Arab states accepted Resolution 242 but since then consistently misinterpreted it to mean "repatriation", when even by 1967, no objective observer of the Arab-Israeli scene could in any way envision a tidal wave of refugees returning to Israel proper. Nevertheless, Arab representatives to the U.N. continued to insist year after year on appropriation for the Palestinians, asserting that the refugees' status would not change until every single one was repatriated to his or her home of origin. Yet in face of these arguments the U.N. stance remained the same. Thus, the Oslo accords, signed on September 1993 and September 1995, declare the intent of both parties to reach a permanent settlement on the basis of resolution 242 and in that context to seek a fair settlement for the refugee problem. The two accords explicitly omit any mention of resolution 194.

Despite the Oslo accords, Arafat insisted at Camp David, during the eleventh hour of the negotiations in the summer of 2000, that the right of return be incorporated into the peace agreement. His insistence torpedoed the negotiation. Some Palestinians continue to support his stance. They argue that Israel must accept the right of return if it is to satisfy a core Palestinian national requirement, even though the majority of the refugees may elect not to return, accepting instead compensation or resettlement. Although, on the surface this "reality" may appear to ease Israeli concerns, no Israeli leader will accept leaving the question of the right of return open-ended on the possibility that a majority of Palestinians will simply decline to exercise their right. But to make their point, some Palestinian leaders, including the former and the current prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, respectively, cite a poll taken in July 2003 by a leading political scientist, Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research in Gaza. Mr. Shikaki found that given the choice, only 10 percent of Palestinians would choose to return to Israel proper. (Because he dared to publish his findings, Mr. Shikaki was subsequently attacked and his office ransacked by a group of Palestinians associated with Arafat, events that did not escape the notice of most Israelis.) Notwithstanding the poll's accuracy in measuring the public pulse, the existence of Palestinian extremists such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad who are sworn to persevere until the destruction of Israel prevents Israeli leaders from accepting such a proposal in good faith. Their skepticism has of course been strengthened in the wake of the second Intifadah which has obliterated the last vestige of trust between the two sides. In addition, they argue that the Palestinian Authority never publically conceded the right of return; rather, it consistently upheld this as a sacred right. Thus, to Israelis, even though current Palestinian leaders may compromise on the question of return to satisfy Israeli demographic concerns, once Israel accepts the right of return in principle, there is absolutely no guarantee that the next generation of Palestinians would not raise the issue anew and this time reclaim full repatriation.

The ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will of necessity result in the return of most of the West Bank and all of Gaza to the Palestinians while both sides share East Jerusalem. If this happens, perhaps up to 100 thousand Palestinians may return to Israel under a family reunification program along the lines set forth during the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba, Egypt, in late 2000. And once a Palestinian state is established, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, especially from Lebanon and Syria, who decide to return to their land of their ancestors will surely be welcome. No keen observer of the refugee problem, however, anticipates a mass influx of Palestinians, even to their own state. The majority of refugees, as evidenced from repeated polls, will seek compensation.

Some Israeli religious scholars have observed that the Palestinian exodus indicates that divine intervention was at work. The 700 to 800 thousand Palestinian refugees who left their place of residence were replaced by Jewish immigrants form the Middle East. In the early 1950s, some 800 to 900 thousand Jews from Arab states, especially Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria, immigrated to Israel and quickly resettled throughout the country. These Jews were not only indigenous to the region but lived in these lands for thousands of years, certainly before Islam came into being. Therefore, have an inherent right to exercise self-determination. In fact, 60 percent of Israeli Jews are of oriental origin (sephardic) and have simply moved from one part of the Middle East and North Africa to another part of Arab land to participate in the establishment of the third Jewish commonwealth. This perspective neither minimizes nor ignores the Palestinian plight or rights. It simply suggests that the changing realities in the region make a large-scale demographic reversal impossible.

Israel must do its share to contribute to the rehabilitation of the refugees in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement between the two parties. Since the assumption behind any peace is that Israel will eventually evacuate most of the settlements, the government can make a significant contribution to peace and the quality of life that follows it by not destroying any of the settlements that will inevitably be left behind, as occurred in the city of Yamit after the evacuation of the Sinai. For more than a generation, Israel has invested billions in the West Bank. Destroying the settlements neither recovers anything nor lessens the pain of a single departing settler. Rather, it will be seen by the Arab nations as an act of blind hatred and, as such, will breed only more hatred, stifling the desire in the hearts of millions of Arabs to embrace Israel as a neighbor. Israel should leave these living "monuments" intact for some of the Palestinians refugees displaced during the decades of hostilities. This will be Israel's greatest contribution to the peace of reconciliation, which is critical for peoples destined to coexist despite themselves.

The time has come for the Palestinian leadership to disabuse the masses of the false dream of return that has held in thrall their imagination for more than five decades but led them only to greater despair. Only the people can liberate themselves from the shackles of the past and refuse to live any longer in the long shadows cast by the sinister scheme their leaders have perpetrated to the detriment of human decency.