Commentary Magazine


A Soft Right of Return

The eminent scholar, Walter Russell Mead believes he has the formula for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In his new Foreign Affairs article, Mead suggests the U.S. should turn an old paradigm on its head:

In the past, U.S. peacemakers have had an Israel-centric approach to the negotiating process; the Obama administration needs to put Palestinian politics and Palestinian public opinion at the center of its peacemaking efforts.

He argues that there’s a “structural imbalance” to the peace process that favors Israel at the initial stages: “by recognizing Israel from the outset, the Palestinians concede Israel’s core demand and receive only the right to start talking”. But the process favors Palestinians at the end of negotiations: “Here, it is Israel that has to make key concessions… and trust and hope that the Palestinians will reciprocate by providing Israel with the security it craves”. Addressing these imbalances will require assurances from the international community. However, Mead’s article focuses on the Palestinians. Believing that Arafat was capable of delivering peace and controlling Palestinian society was a grave mistake. Convincing a majority of Palestinians to support a deal is the only way to get something done:

To a very important degree, Israeli and Palestinian interests are linked. A peace agreement that does not address central Palestinian concerns will lack the legitimacy in Palestinian public opinion that is necessary to make peace real — that can give the Palestinian state the authority and support it needs to enforce the peace and protect Israel’s security. Unless the Palestinians get enough of what they want from the settlement, the Israelis will not get enough of the security they seek.

But how can the U.S. give Palestinians “enough of what they want” without putting Israel at risk of forcing it into concessions it does not want to make?

Obama must go further than his predecessors. He must overcome the skepticism created by the Bush administration’s empty rhetorical support for a Palestinian state. He must declare that the United States is committed not only to an independent Palestine but also to acknowledging the wrongs the Palestinians have suffered, compensating them for those, and otherwise ensuring a dignified future for every Palestinian family.

Mead assumes that the main issue for Palestinians is that they want “an acknowledgment of the injustices they have suffered.” But he refuses to go down the path so many before him have traveled, and blame Israel alone for Palestinians’ grievances. In a shrewdly crafted move – really the key element of this article – he lays most of the blame on the international community:

The United Nations’ failure to provide elementary security for both the Arab and the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine as the British withdrew was the immediate cause of both communities’ suffering in the late 1940s — of the initial clashes between them, of the accelerating spiral of violence, of the Arab armies’ entry into the conflict, and then of the prolonged period of hostility. Modern Israel should acknowledge and account for its part in those tragic events, but the international community at large must accept the ultimate responsibility for the nakba…

The rest is really detail: Establish funds, compensate, help refugees resettle. Mead believes this will help convince Palestinians that they can live without the concrete “right of return.” The key for this to happen is for the international community to “create dignified choices” for those refugees, including ways for them to integrate into the countries they now live in, or to immigrate to the U.S., Canada, Australia, or Europe. Convincing Palestinians in this way will also help Obama calm Israelis:

A decision by the international community to assume the ultimate moral and financial responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight would give Israel an opportunity to close the book on Palestinian claims once and for all. Developing and helping fund a mechanism that would also compensate Israeli refugees from the Arab world would address the impression widely shared among Israelis that many states have a one-sided approach to refugee issues. And by making the Palestinians’ commitment to peaceful coexistence a key test of the peace process, the Obama administration would be placing the focus where many Israelis think it belongs.

Mead, as usual, presents a convincing theoretical formula. But he leaves some nagging questions unanswered. It’s not clear what Palestinian groups he wants to consult (he does seem to think that Hamas should be part of the negotiating process), and how such a thing can be done without totally discrediting the existing Palestinian Authority; he does not address the deep mistrust Israelis might feel if Obama starts his term by giving Palestinians the rhetorical “right of return”; he does not go into other important questions like Jerusalem, borders, and security; and he does not address the possibility that such problems can prevent an agreement even if the refugee problem is fully resolved.

Most importantly, he does not address the questions of Palestinian ambition: Will the refugee-problem-solving mechanism he offers really make Palestinians as happy as he wants them to be? If the answer is not a resounding yes – and what kind of assurances can one provide? – Mead is going to find himself at the short-end of his own “structural imbalance” claim: giving Palestinians both the acknowledgment and the money – essentially a symbolic “right of return” – and getting only hope in return.

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