‘You will go home again in safety and in freedom. When you have gone through something as awful as this, it is very easy to have your spirit broken, to spend the rest of your life obsessed with anger and resentment. But if you do that, you have already given those who have opposed you a victory.”
“We must have peace on terms that will allow the people to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. And we must have accounting for the wrongs that have been done.”
The above statements were not made by a PLO leader addressing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon or in Gaza. They were made by US President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeline Albright regarding the Kosovo refugees.
I recall these statements because of a major problem in the recent statement by Clinton regarding the Middle East, namely the attempt to suggest sanitized solutions, avoiding any attempts at contextualization of the conflict. Instead, the Clinton plan attempts to portray the conflict and its solution in Israeli terms.
For years the Israeli position has been to reject examination of the root of the conflict. The United States has regularly advocated restricting the solution to the present and the future.
Whatever solution the Israelis suggest (which is often replayed in its exact wording by US officials) deals only in functional terms.
The need to look for a pragmatic solution is no doubt necessary and practical, but such a solution can’t and shouldn’t be implemented without an admission of the wrongs done to the Palestinians.
How else can Palestinians be expected to accept major compromises on internationally guaranteed rights such as the right of return of refugees, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194?
The right of Palestinians to return to their homes and lands has been the hallmark of international law regarding the Middle East since 1948. The choice between returning and compensation is the right of the refugees themselves, not the US, not Canada and not even the Palestinian president.
But while the right is inalienable, the execution is negotiable.
In order to make a proper start to solving this complicated problem, Israel must accept moral responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
The US president, the UN secretary-general, and the international community should not try to absolve Israel of this historic responsibility.
Once Israel accepts such responsibility for both the creation of the refugee issue and the principle that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to return, then the execution of this right can be negotiated with the PLO, as representative of the Palestinian people, and with the refugees themselves, if necessary.
Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, I believe that this can be done without endangering the existence of the State of Israel or its demographic nature.
It is no secret that not all Palestinian refugees and their descendants want to return to the specific homes and lands from which they were expelled. Many want to stay where they are (among those are many living in Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza). Some might agree to move to a third country.
There are those who may want to live in the new Palestinian state; others who want the right to return but who will not move to Israel. Finally, there are some who will choose to actually return to their homes, which are now in the State of Israel.
When all is said and done, it is unlikely that this last group will dramatically affect Israel’s demographic balance.
But denying Palestinians their right and refusing to accept moral and historic responsibility will not move the Middle East’s most difficult problem in the direction of resolution.
US pragmatists must understand the deep emotional scars that the 1948 nakba (catastrophe) has caused Palestinians.
If the US administration wishes for a lasting resolution it must understand that genuine and lasting peace and reconciliation can only begin with the admission of the wrong – and a true attempt at resolving it.
The Israelis and the Americans will be pleasantly surprised at how generous Palestinians will be in terms of the extent of the implementation and the execution of the right of return.