Returning to the right of return

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Thanks to Ahmed Moor for his thoughtful comments on my previous post outlining a possible framework for a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine.  Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved – whether through the creation of one state, two states or what have you – without addressing the issue of the Palestinian right of return.  Before turning to that tough problem, though, I’ll deal with two other issues raised by Mr. Moor and other commentators. 

First, my previous post gave some readers the impression that I advocated unilateral annexation of the Golan by Israel.  That was not my intent.  My concern was ensuring that the continuing Israel-Syria deadlock would not delay or complicate the creation and constitution of an Israeli-Palestinian state, which would incorporate and administer the Golan pending an agreement with Syria. 

Having inadvertently raised the issue, I’ll add that I’m not convinced that the return of the entire Golan to Syria would be the best or only way to reach a stable and secure peace agreement between Israel and Syria.  However, that’s a topic for another day.  For now, it’s sufficient to say that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be blocked by lack of progress on the Golan.  That was my original point, which in retrospect I should have made more clearly. 

The second, more relevant issue raised by a number of commentators was, How do we get to a one-state solution?  At the end of my previous post, I briefly proposed a civil-rights-based vision and strategy, and Mr. Moor, in his comments, quite rightly emphasized the enormous power of the idea of human equality.  How might that power be brought to bear? 

Let’s assume that international pressure is necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the major third parties whose assistance is required are the democratic nations of Europe and the Anglosphere.  Let’s further assume that the Palestinian claim for justice is stated as follows:  For forty-three years we residents of the Occupied Territories have been ruled and controlled by Israel, without, however, having ever been given a voice in choosing our rulers or in regulating their conduct.  Furthermore, Israel clearly intends to perpetuate that unconscionable state of affairs.  We therefore demand full citizenship and equal rights, including the right to vote in Israel’s upcoming national elections. 

I don’t see how the world could remain indifferent to that demand.  More particularly, how could Americans, especially the first African-American U.S. President, fail to support such a compelling claim for freedom, equality and civil rights?  I hope I’m not being naïve, but it seems to me obvious that a Palestinian voting rights campaign would break the back of the Occupation and set the stage for serious discussion of one-state solutions. 

Now for the issue of the Palestinian right of return.  In my previous post I proposed putting both the Jewish and Palestinian rights of return on hold for a generation while Israelis and Palestinians struggle to learn to live together in a single state.  However, if that proves infeasible, then the Palestinian right of return will have to be addressed contemporaneously with the implementation of a one-state or two-state solution. 

I’ll preface this discussion by stating that my years in Israel have made me thoroughly sick of tribal thinking.  In my perfect world, a person’s religious or ethnic background would be regarded by himself and by others as being of no more importance than his preference for strawberry ice cream over pistachio or vice versa.  Tribal thinking pollutes everything.  I don’t even enjoy the Jewish high holidays anymore, since they are always accompanied by the imposition of curfews and movement restrictions on Palestinians, and one feels sick and embarrassed watching the authorities dropping boulders on access roads to Palestinian neighborhoods.  The irony is particularly acute on Yom Kippur, when we Jews are supposed to be atoning for our sins. 

Because the assertion of group rights generally only exacerbates inter-group conflicts, I prefer to keep the focus on individual rights, as I did in my previous proposal for a one-state solution.  Thus I would say the same thing to a Jew born in America and to a Palestinian born in Lebanon, to wit:  You can’t return to where you’ve never been.  If you want to immigrate to Israel-Palestine, then let’s establish criteria for immigration.  That’s how I would define the issue. 

However, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind – opinions upon which I rely for a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – also requires me to respect assertions of collective rights such as the Jewish and Palestinian rights of return.  So I’ll proceed to discuss the issue on those terms. 

The current issue of Oxford’s Refugee Survey Quarterly is entirely devoted to articles on UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees.  In one article, entitled "Future Prospects for the Palestinian Refugees," the author begins by quoting Alexander Pope, who famously wrote that "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."  I agree with his sentiment entirely.  Only a fool, holy or otherwise, would attempt to offer insights or solutions on an issue that has been so widely yet fruitlessly debated for so many years.  I reluctantly embark on this fool’s errand only because it can’t be avoided.  If I can’t promise the reader breathtaking revelations, I’ll try at least to follow George Orwell’s exhortation to remind people, myself included, of the obvious. 

The Palestinian right of return is so difficult to address, not just because of its historical, factual, legal and moral complexity, but also because most Israelis and Palestinians are unable to discuss it dispassionately.  Mere mention of the topic immediately arouses such great fear and anger that I’m reminded of the old joke that foreign countries shouldn’t be sending diplomats to the Middle East, they should be sending teams of psychiatrists.  If ever there was an issue where impartial foreign intermediaries are needed to propose a fair solution or even impose one on the parties involved, this is it.   

Recently, Haaretz published a piece by Alexander Yakobson entitled "A bi-delusional state," in which the author took a hammer to the dream of a secular, liberal, bi-national state in Israel-Palestine.  While I don’t agree with all his conclusions (and the Magnes Zionist certainly doesn’t), I think Yakobson is probably correct in asserting that the one-state dream is incompatible with large-scale, near-term implementation of the Palestinian right of return.  To show why, I’ll first address the right of return within the framework of a two-state solution, which in any case is the framework still generally endorsed by the international community.  I’ll further assume that a two-state solution would not necessarily adopt the Ayalon-Nusseibeh approach whereby Jews have a right of return only to Israel and Palestinians have a right of return only to Palestine.  Instead, a two-state solution might incorporate some measure of Palestinian return to Israel. 

The international community unanimously condemns the Occupation and settlements but expresses no such unanimity regarding the Palestinian right of return to Israel.  The concrete implementation of the latter right would necessitate weighing numerous competing considerations, a series of "on the other hand"s that would make Tevye the milkman’s head spin. 

On the one hand, in 1948, Israeli forces intentionally expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and villages, partly because of security concerns, but also partly to expand the borders of the new Jewish state while greatly reducing the number of Palestinians living within those borders.  That was a grave wrong, and Israel bears primary responsibility for creating the Palestinian refugee problem. 

On the other hand, the conflict did not begin in 1948.  From the beginning, there was room enough for Jews and Arabs to live together in harmony, but most Jews and Arabs failed to recognize the humanity of the Other:  his history, his culture, his tragic circumstances and deepest aspirations.  Jewish-Arab conflict and violence escalated steadily in the 1920’s and ’30s, so that in 1948 no one was surprised when war broke out and was waged ruthlessly.  For almost a century each side has succeeded in inflicting great misery on the other, and if Israelis have inflicted much more suffering on Palestinians than vice versa, it’s because they’ve had the upper hand, not because either side is composed of angels or devils. 

I make the preceding point not to paper over important distinctions with facile moral equivalence, but rather in an attempt to get past sanctimonious breast-beating.  Each side still wants to cast itself as the sole and eternal victim and on that basis make impossible demands.  However, if it is true that without justice there can be no peace, it is also true that there can be no peace if anyone insists on perfect justice. 

Furthermore, the traditional remedy for refugees is resettlement, not repatriation, primarily because repatriation of refugees can re-ignite the conflict that created the refugee problem in the first place.  The danger of that happening in the Israeli-Palestinian context should be obvious, because it’s only natural that many Palestinians, particularly those effectively imprisoned in Gaza or in Lebanese refugee camps, would prefer revenge over co-existence.  There is no shortage of news reports and opinion surveys showing that many Palestinians want to return to Israel but do not want Israeli citizenship and are not prepared to live in peace with Israeli Jews. 

On the other (third) hand, more recent trends have favored repatriation of refugees over resettlement, most notably in Kosovo.  The advantage of repatriation over resettlement is that the former does not ratify acts of expulsion or ethnic cleansing. 

On the other (fourth) hand, Kosovo and other recent instances of repatriation involved refugees who themselves had recently been driven from their homes.  The right to repatriation is more tenuous when asserted on behalf of refugees’ descendants who  were born and raised in other countries.  The world is full of people who live in one country because their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents fled another, but most of those people make their lives where they are and don’t dream about returning to ancestral communities that, for the most part, no longer exist. 

On the other (fifth) hand, resettlement has been a far from perfect remedy for most Palestinians living outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories.  Most of them were born and raised in neighboring Arab states where, however, they have not been granted citizenship, and they suffer burdensome legal restrictions on employment, education, health care, social benefits, property ownership, travel and family reunification.  The legal landscape varies from country to country, with Jordan providing the most favorable environment for Palestinians, and Lebanon the worst. 

(A good historico-legal introduction to the subject is Abbas Shiblak’s 1996 article "Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries," published in the Journal of Palestine Studies.  There are also more up-to-date reports on the legal status of Palestinian refugees in Arab states, in the Refugee Survey Quarterly and elsewhere on the Internet.) 

On the other (sixth) hand, Israelis don’t want to be thrown out of their homes.  They’re also understandably concerned that if they become a minority subject to a Palestinian majority, their language and culture may be de-legitimized and their democratic forms of government may be overturned.  Therefore, the Palestinian right of return to Israel must be balanced against competing rights and, ultimately, quantified. 

I am sure there are additional important considerations that I haven’t addressed.  In any case, there are at least three essential preconditions to the implementation of a Palestinian right of return to Israel. 

The first precondition is an official Israeli admission of guilt and apology for the Nakba.  A real, unqualified apology is required.  Expressions of regret won’t do. 

The second precondition is a concrete proposal specifying the numbers and characteristics of Palestinians who would return to Israel. 

Poll data regarding the number of Palestinians who would actually want to move to Israel, Palestine or Israel-Palestine are sparse, scattered and inconclusive.  The details remain difficult to pin down, despite decades of discussion and debate, because the subject is radioactive.  Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, reportedly received death threats after questioning the feasibility of the right of return and suggesting compromise or waiver.  Political scientist Khalil Shikaki was attacked by a mob in Ramallah after publicizing poll results indicating that most Palestinians would not choose to live in Israel, even if they could. 

It’s not completely clear why many Palestinians are adamant in their insistence on their right of return but at the same time strongly resistant to spelling out the details of its possible implementation.  Some commentators contend that Palestinians view the right of return primarily in terms of abstract, even divine justice, which by its nature is  incompatible with limitation.  Others claim that lack of specificity is a stratagem to win agreement in principle to the right of return by concealing the actual, concrete, expected results of such agreement. 

In any case, Palestinian leaders and intellectuals must understand that vagueness and obfuscation regarding the right of return are interpreted by many outsiders as a possible indication of bad faith, or at the very least as an impassable obstacle to resolving the issue.  The obvious cure is to create an international Palestinian advisory council empowered to conduct thorough research regarding the implementation of the right of return, report its findings, and propose a solution. 

Once an initial proposal is made, the world will have a better idea of what Palestinians really want.  The initial proposal may be so modest that third party intermediaries breathe a sigh of relief, or it may be so extreme that they shake their heads and despair of reaching agreement.  Or the proposal may be somewhere in the middle, in which case all parties must sit down and negotiate criteria for implementation. 

Specific proposals would also enable experts to devise concrete resettlement plans.  The guiding principle should be that Palestinians would be resettled side-by-side with Israelis, not in place of them.  In other words, resettlement would not restore previous title or leasehold at the expense of current ownership, since no peaceful agreement could result from attempting to remedy Palestinian dispossession by dispossessing Israelis.  Nor would it be realistic for arriving Palestinians to expect to receive the kind of large family landholdings that were common in 1948, when the population of the entire Mandate was less than two million and most worked in agriculture, but which are unheard of in modern times when the same territory holds almost twelve million.  However, within the preceding parameters, Israel ought to subsidize housing, job training and employment for arriving Palestinians. 

The third precondition for implementation of the Palestinian right of return is that the Arab states must offer citizenship and legal equality to Palestinians who were born and reside in those states.  The right of return is not an obligation to return.  A Palestinian born in an Arab state and desiring to remain there should be able to do so without suffering legal handicaps. 

If the Arab states wanted to grant citizenship and equal rights to Palestinians because it’s the right thing to do, they would have done so already.  Nothing will change unless the Western democracies hammer on Israel and on the Arab states alike to grant Palestinians their rights.  That would give Palestinians real, positive choices. Moreover, Israeli and world opinion would be more favorably inclined to the exercise of the Palestinian right of return if it wasn’t perceived as the result of Arab states making Palestinians’ lives so miserable that they want to leave.  In any event, regularization of the legal status of Palestinians in all countries where they live is the only way to reach a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian refugee problem. 

(I have not addressed the issue of financial assistance and compensation for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.  Perhaps Mr. Moor, who judging from his writings possesses economic acumen that I lack, will outline possible solutions.  More generally, I would be happy to read about economic frameworks and arrangements that might underpin freedom, equality, peace and prosperity in the region.) 

The previous considerations show how difficult it would be to reconcile a secular, democratic one-state solution with broad implementation of the Palestinian right of return.  Establishment of one state would necessarily open the door to near-term, large-scale Palestinian immigration, which would be further encouraged by the nascent Palestinian majority in the new state and by Arab states as well.  The new state would soon have a decisive Palestinian supermajority and, more importantly, an even larger supermajority of people, both Arabs and Jews, who are primarily motivated by ethnic and religious affiliations and loyalties.  There is no reason to expect that the small minorities of true liberals and secular humanists in the region, who presently have so little influence in Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Arab states, would somehow rule the roost in Israel-Palestine.  More likely, the Jewish minority in Israel-Palestine would suffer, at a minimum, similar disabilities to those suffered by other disfavored minorities in the Middle East, and in all probability their situation would be greatly complicated by the enormous residual hostility built up over the years between Israelis and Palestinians.  Even constitutional guarantees could easily prove worthless, and no one would be surprised if civil war broke out, as it did in Lebanon under similar circumstances. 

I arrived at the preceding conclusion with a feeling of great disappointment and sorrow.  I’ve spent years reading and thinking about the possibility of a one-state solution, until I finally felt compelled to offer the proposal outlined in my previous post, because the prospect of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creating a unitary state based on universal values, in one bold stroke, offers the kind of positive vision that is so lacking in the region.  Perhaps some additional information, idea, or change in circumstances can still make that dream a reality.  In the meantime, though, it’s best to remain mindful of history’s harsh lessons regarding the harm that can result from beautiful but unrealistic political ideologies.  For now I remain focused on the goals of ending the Occupation and creating two states for two peoples. 

One final note:  Mr. Moor raised the prospect of Israel becoming a failed state.  Recent developments and current trends in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are indeed appalling.  I hope that like-minded Jews and Arabs here and abroad will work together to create a new political alignment, a new Israeli-Palestinian Left that rejects all forms of religious fundamentalism and ethnic discrimination.  Otherwise, conditions in Israel and the Occupied Territories may continue to deteriorate, degenerating into a frightening mess to which no Jew or Palestinian in his right mind would wish to return.

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