Israelis and Palestinians should ponder 'land for refugees'

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

It is now pretty clear that despite almost universally repeated incantations, the Quartet “road map is not going anywhere. In a way, it never was a road map, but a wish list; nor did it specify how to get from A to B. Above all, it put both Palestinians and Israelis in the unenviable position of having to take meaningful steps, some of them irreversible, without knowing whether at the end of the road a final-status solution would actually be achieved. It is this conundrum that has recently given rise to the idea of trying to address the final-status issues first – in other words, starting with the most difficult issues. Given the current weakness of the Israeli government and the internal turmoil among the Palestinians (where there is not yet a state but there appear to be two governments), this may seem counter-intuitive: When you can’t solve problems like dismantling illegal outposts or stopping terrorism, how can you expect to approach such fundamental issues as borders, refugees and Jerusalem? But maybe there is some logic in this attempt to reverse the order. Here are some reasons why. It is perfectly legitimate for Palestinians to ask what Israel means when it says it accepts the two-state solution. There is not only the question of the size of the future Palestinian state, but also its shape. It is important for the Palestinians to know whether Israel is ready to give up 90 percent or only 60 percent of the Occupied Territories; yet it may be even more important to know whether this state would control a contiguous territory (despite the inevitable separation between Gaza and the West Bank) or would be a patchwork of cantons cut off from one another, basically unable to provide the infrastructure for a coherent and viable polity. Yet there may be a more significant consideration weighing heavily on the minds of most Israelis and curtailing the freedom of maneuver of any Israeli government: the Palestinian claim to the right of return to Israel of 1948 refugees. This is not merely a humanitarian issue; it goes to the root of the conflict. It is also the main factor that, following the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000, soured many centrist and left-wing Israelis’ hopes for an achievable resolution to the conflict. For almost 60 years, the Palestinian narrative has held that the 1948 refugees have a right to return to what were their or their forefathers’ homes in Israel proper. That is what appears in all Palestinian school textbooks; that is what all Palestinian organizations, without exception, include in their founding documents; that is what hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants hear constantly from their leaders, teachers and preachers. Regardless of the Palestinians’ subjective feelings regarding the justice of this claim, for Israelis it means that the Palestinian agenda is not just about putting an end to the post-1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Rather, it aims at reversing the consequences of 1948, when Israel accepted partition while the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries rejected it. Arabs went to war not only against Israel but also against the United Nations’ solution, which was the basis of the international legitimacy for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. No Israeli leader can be expected to make significant concessions on the West Bank and plan the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers when he cannot reassure his public that if Israel gives up the territories occupied in 1967, Palestinians will see this as a final and unambiguous end of the conflict. The damage Yasser Arafat did to the Palestinian cause at Camp David was so terrible that, since then, most Israelis have seen the refugee issue as not a humanitarian problem (that obviously has to be addressed generously by Israel), but as a Trojan horse for the Palestinians to undermine the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. There is no doubt that if a Palestinian leader would clearly and unequivocally give up the right of return to Israel – not, of course, to a future independent Palestinian state – the Israeli public would put enormous pressure on its government to take the dramatic leap toward defining the final borders of Israel. But this is utopian. One can understand the political difficulty for the Palestinian leadership to make such a statement, thereby reversing 60 years of keeping the hope of return burning in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants. Yet Palestinian leaders can take the first steps: by toning down the rhetoric in schools, textbooks, and public meetings; by stating, gently and carefully, that whatever the justice of the claim of return to Israel it is unrealistic and cannot be fulfilled. The Palestinians need a diplomatic horizon, but the refugees need a human horizon. And Israelis need reassurance that the two-state solution is not the first step toward dismantling their country. The issue is not to quibble about the number of possible returnees. The point is to try to clarify the ultimate parameters of a final-status agreement: on Israel’s side, a willingness to return basically to the 1967 borders; on the Palestinian side, a clear indication that the claim of return has been reversed. Difficult? Yes. But precisely because it is so difficult, this may be the opening to a compromise that will be hard on both sides, yet necessary for any serious attempt at reconciliation. Here clear language and intellectual honesty are a must. Therefore, it may not be totally nonsensical to start with the most difficult issues first. Shlomo Avineriis a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He served as director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry in the first government of Yitzhak Rabin. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

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