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Commentary

The 'Right of Return' Dashes All Hope

January 04, 2001|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — Yasser Arafat's refusal to abandon the "right of return" of several million Palestinian refugees to Israel proper belies his tentative acceptance of President Clinton's final Middle East peace proposal.

The Oslo peace process was based on the assumption that, at the moment of truth, Arafat would sacrifice the dream of displacing the Jewish state with Greater Palestine in exchange for a more modest Palestinian state alongside Israel. But by insisting on the right of return--even after the Barak government has accepted almost total withdrawal to the 1967 lines and Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem--the Palestinian leadership has proved that its recognition of Israel's legitimacy has been merely tactical all along.

The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode. Arafat's peace offer, then, is predicated on Israel's agreement to self-destruct.

By entrusting the peace process to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the architects of the Oslo accords ensured their ultimate failure. That is because the PLO--which was founded in 1964, three years before the West Bank and Gaza fell into Israeli hands--has always represented the refugees of 1948. Arafat cannot abandon the right of return because he has built his whole career on its fulfillment.

Even left-wing Israelis are horrified by the right of return. In an anguished open letter to the Palestinian leadership, 33 of Israel's most prominent doves recently wrote: "The meaning of such a return would be the elimination of the state of Israel. Massive return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish people."

Indeed, the right of return--not to a new Palestinian state but to Israel--negates the the logic of a two-state solution, in which each state is empowered to bring its diaspora home.

A Palestinian return to Israeli territory would mean that Israel would become a binational Arab-Jewish state, even as an exclusively Arab-Palestinian state, emptied of Jewish settlers, emerges next door. The symbolic meaning of the return is no less significant than its practical implications. The Palestinian leadership insists on Israeli admission of exclusive responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. That, of course, would ignore the real tragedy of the Middle East conflict, which is the story of two traumatized peoples clinging to the same patch of land.

But the Arabs want to evade responsibility for rejecting the 1947 U.N. partition plan and launching the subsequent war against Israel. Of the 600,000 Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war, many fled the fighting on their own initiative while others were expelled by the Israeli army. Any solution to the refugee problem would need to accommodate both Arab and Israeli culpability.

By attempting to compel Israel to accept exclusive blame, the Palestinians intend to discredit the very founding of the Jewish state, which they still see as a crime. And they would continue to see themselves as an innocent-victim people, without any responsibility for its fate.

In fact, a population exchange between Israel and the Arab world occurred in the late 1940s and 1950s, an exchange similar to that in 1947 between India and Pakistan. Israel absorbed from Arab countries nearly a million Jewish refugees, most of whom had their property confiscated.

Those Jews are no longer refugees because Israel took responsibility for its own people. By contrast, after six years of Palestinian self-government in Gaza, virtually nothing has been done to alleviate the plight of Gaza's refugees despite massive infusion of foreign aid. Palestinian leaders are deliberately maintaining their people's misery to pressure Israel and to win international sympathy.

There was a time when the Israelis tried to exclusively appropriate justice for their side and denied the Palestinian narrative. Today, though, only a die-hard minority insists the Palestinians have no case.

True, half a century of sovereignty has allowed Israel to mature, while the Palestinian community remains at an earlier stage of national development, still struggling for statehood. Yet Palestinian self-pity has now become the greatest obstacle to achieving statehood. And those offering uncritical sympathy to the Palestinians are inadvertently reinforcing their self-destructive victim complex.

Friends of the Palestinians should ask them this question: Do you want a state that will alleviate your people's suffering, or is your real goal the destruction of Israel?

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