Refugees forever?

During the final months of Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations in 2000-2001, Israelis discovered that the Palestinian national movement, after preaching “return” for generations, was seemingly incapable of resolving a logical contradiction. On the one hand, in the spirit of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, it officially acknowledged the Israeli state within the 1967 borders. On the other, in accordance with its interpretation of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, it required that Israel accept Palestinian demands for return that potentially neutralized the Jewish-Zionist underpinnings of that state.

The demand by the Palestinian leadership that Israel acknowledge, in some form, the refugees’ right of return, appeared to Israelis to reflect an insistence that, at least at the level of principle, the Jewish state was “born in sin;” that it was in fact, or should be, a bi-national Arab-Jewish state and eventually, thanks to birthrate differentials, a Palestinian state. This impression was reinforced by the increasingly aggressive demands voiced by Israeli Arab leaders, clearly influenced by Palestinian nationalist positions voiced during peace negotiations and culminating in the bloody disturbances of October 2000, that Israel accommodate their status by declaring itself a “state of all its citizens,” i.e., no longer a state of the Jewish people.

Israelis understood, of course, that even a successful peace process would not persuade Palestinians to openly endorse Israel’s own national narrative. This holds that the right of the Jewish people to a country in their historic homeland was endorsed in 1948 by the world community and that it was the Arabs’ refusal to acknowledge that right and their attempt to annihilate Israel that created the Palestinian refugee problem. But how can Israelis make peace with the Palestinians when the latter insist on conditions regarding refugees that actively negate Israel’s core identity as a Jewish state?

The formulae presented at the Taba negotiations in January 2001 for bridging the right of return gap did little to reduce Israeli anxiety. It emerged that Palestinians interpreted Israel’s reported readiness to state that a refugee agreement constitutes implementation of Resolution 194, as an Israeli acknowledgement of the right of return. Who would guarantee that future generations of Palestinians would not invoke this clause to grant legitimacy to renewed claims to “return”? Moreover, a Palestinian commitment to steer refugees toward alternative solutions, such as resettlement in the State of Palestine or the West and rehabilitation in their host countries, could easily encounter mass refugee refusal–based on years of indoctrination, together with the economic incentive of living in a prosperous country–to accept any solution but return to Israel, thereby potentially scuttling the entire agreement.

One key reason why most Israelis are prepared to dismantle the many settlements that interfere with Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank and Gaza and even to partition Jerusalem, is their growing awareness that their demographic security–the capacity to maintain a solid Jewish majority in Israel over the long term–is as important as their military security. Today they are acutely aware that even the modest achievement of a cold peace with Jordan and Egypt and a partial peace with Palestinians has prompted tens of thousands of Arabs to infiltrate Israel, with its relative prosperity, looking for work. This Middle East “north-south” microcosm poses a potential demographic threat for Israel. Hence Israelis’ insistence that a refugee solution fully respect Israel’s Jewish nature, and that peace look more like “separation” than “integration.”

There is one additional problematic aspect of the right of return issue that requires specific comment: the readiness on the part of the world, including Israel, to acquiesce in a definition of refugee status that allows it to be passed on from generation to generation. Nowhere else in the world is a refugee problem officially in its fifth generation. Everywhere else, the children and grandchildren of refugees, including Jewish refugees, may still pursue property compensation claims–but not “return”. Here, then, we must at least begin to contemplate an ominous possibility. The longer the Palestinian refugee/right of return issue remains unsolved, the more refugees there will be–until, through intermarriage, virtually all Palestinians will be “refugees” and, for better or for worse, the “refugee problem” will simply become synonymous with the “Palestinian problem.”

This points to one possible area of compromise: conceivably, Israel could recognize some humanitarian right of family reunification, which Palestinians could label “return,” for all first generation refugees, i.e., those over 54 who were actually born in present day Israel, who wish to return and who have relatives that could assist in their absorption. Their number would not be large, nor would they affect the long-term demographic balance, but their “return” could provide a degree of satisfaction for the Palestinian narrative without seriously challenging the Israeli narrative. In exchange, the Palestinian leadership would agree that all other refugees be resettled or rehabilitated outside of Israel.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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