The harsh statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he would not allow a single Palestinian refugee to return to Israel did not bother me much. Knowing what I know about the long-term desires of most Palestinians, the actual implementation of the right of return is not as high a Palestinian priority. However, Olmert’s other statement, that Israel bore no responsibility for causing the Palestinian refugee problem, clearly reflects the stance of an Israeli leader not interested in peace.
I strongly believe that the pre-state armed Zionist groups were responsible for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. My father George Kuttab and his brother Qostandi fled their neighbourhood of Musrara (in what is now west Jerusalem) after their sister Hoda’s husband, Elias, was killed in front of her and her children.
Israeli researcher Ilan Pape details what happened throughout historic Palestine in his book "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine". Furthermore, since its establishment, the state of Israel has totally refused to implement successive UN resolutions demanding that it give permission to refugees to return.
I know from personal interaction that if allowed to choose, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees prefer to stay where they are.
In every Palestinian-Israeli negotiation, while the Palestinian side clang to the inalienable right of refugees to return to houses and lands where they lived before 1948, they were also willing to make big concessions on how this right is to be implemented. The basic Palestinian demand is not the actual return of all refugees but that Israel take historic and moral responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.
Contrary to common belief, the issue of the right of return was not the deal breaker in various Palestinian-Israeli talks, whether in Oslo, Camp David or Taba. Issues like Jerusalem and borders were more of a real obstacle to peace.
Jews from around the world, as well as modern day Israelis, should be the first to understand the difference between the right and the yearning, on the one hand, and the implementation of the right of return, on the other. For 2,000 years Jews were constantly reminding each other of the prayer for Zion by repeating the statement "next year in Jerusalem". No one opposed that Jewish desire and hope and no one should demand Palestinians to stop having such hope and aspiration.
Modern day politics, and the interests of peoples and states, do not and should not be run based on poetic wishes or on prayers and desires. Today’s state requires national planning, and therefore it cannot in regular times deal with something as unpredictable as millions of peoples moving into their country. Sovereign states have a right to know what the demographics are.
Since the advent of Zionism, Jewish Zionists have repeatedly said that they wanted a state as Jewish as France is French or England is British. The idea of flooding the state of Israel with unwanted hundreds of thousands or millions of non-Jews is not practical and will clearly not happen.
For their part, Palestinian refugees who have been living away from their homes for over 50 years have already established themselves and have no real, moving tomorrow-type of desire to live in today’s state of Israel. When asked in poll after poll if they would want to live in Tel Aviv or Herzilya, next to Hebrew speaking Jews, almost all Palestinian refugees answered in the negative.
A poll commissioned by the respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki a few years back showed that less than 10 per cent of the Palestinian refugees actually want to return to the areas which today constitute the state of Israel.
Most Palestinian refugees would most likely want to be treated as citizens with equal rights in the countries they are in now, as well as have a right to go to the state of Palestine (no matter its borders) as a national right and if things turn sour where they are. The one exception to this rule would be Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon who are treated as third-class citizens not allowed to work in certain profession. For those, as well as for Palestinians in other countries, living in the independent state of Palestine would be satisfactory. Another possibility for some of the refugees would be to be offered asylum in a third country, say Canada, Australia or even the United States.
That leaves two problems: one symbolic, one political. An admission by a courageous Israeli prime minister of the responsibility of Israel for causing the Palestinian refugee problem would neutralise many who have been holding on to their keys and demanding the literal implementation of the right of return. Politically, neutralising the demand of the right of return can only happen if it comes as part of a package deal that includes real Israeli withdrawal and the creation of a sovereign and independent, viable Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
Negotiations are always about reciprocity. If the Israelis wish that none of the Palestinians they kicked out of their homes and lands ever come back, they need at least to recognise their own historical role in creating the refugee problem. If they do that as part of a land-for-peace package agreement, they will discover that Palestinians will be generous in helping them with their own demographic problem.
Once a Palestinian state exists alongside the state of Israel, surely small numbers of Palestinian refugees can be allowed, as part of a bilateral agreement, to reunite with their families who stayed in what became Israel after 1948.