The conventional wisdom of our chattering classes holds that the key to Middle East peace is more Israeli territorial withdrawals will pave the way for a two-state solution. That will end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But as Palestinians mark the anniversary of Israel’s birth with Nakba Day demonstrations, border incursions, and terror attacks, even those Palestinian leaders who say they will accept a two state solution can’t afford either to accept Israel as a Jewish state or give up on the right of return. Millions of Arab who claim to be descendants of refugees from Israel’s War of Independence are still kept stateless in countries around the borders of Israel. Their plight is the driving force behind the Arab war on Israel, and the refusal of the Arab world to accept any resolution of their situation that does not involve their “return” to what is now the state of Israel remains the primary obstacle to peace.
So long as that is true no withdrawal of Israeli troops or settlements from Gaza (as was the case in 2005 when Israel uprooted every last soldier and settlement) or even the West Bank or Jerusalem will achieve anything but a continuance of the conflict on less advantageous terms for Israel.
But Nakba Day, the Arab commemoration of Israel’s Independence Day, should also serve as a reminder that there were two groups of refugees that were created in the aftermath of May 15, 1948. While it is true that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from the territory that became Israel as the fighting heated up, an almost equal number of Jews were forced to flee or were evicted from their homes in Arab countries after May 15. These Jewish refugees fled to Israel or to new homes in the West. Unlike Arab refugees, the displaced Jews were not kept in camps to propagandize their plight and to fuel the desire for future wars. Those who landed in Israel in the aftermath of the War of Independence did not have it easy but, with the help of worldwide Jewry, they were resettled. Although they left property behind in the Arab world that was probably equal to that lost by the Palestinian Arabs, those who concoct peace plans demand no compensation for the Jewish refugees or their descendants.
Nakba Day may remind Arabs of their historical grievance against Israel’s creation and their desire to see it reversed. But it also should remind them and their cheering sections in the West that the Arabs had and continue to have a choice. They can make peace and accept the reality of a Jewish state and deal with their own problems just as the Jews did with their refugees. Or they can continue to hold millions of people hostage to their unfulfilled ambition to wipe out Israel.