Commentary Magazine

“Right of Return” Is Not About “Refugees”

In A Jewish State,”the Wall Street Journal notes that “the right of return, with its implicit promise to eliminate Israel, is the centerpiece of the conflict” between Israelis and Arabs. The Journal observes that it is a “right” recognized “for no other refugee group in the world,” and that its acceptance by Israel would risk “a demographic time bomb that could turn the country into another Lebanon, sectarian and bloody.” The Journal explains the Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state as follows: “As to why Mr. Abbas won’t accept a Jewish state, it’s because doing so means relinquishing what Palestinians call the ‘right of return.’”

The Journal’s otherwise excellent editorial confuses a tactic and a goal. The reason the Palestinians won’t accept a Jewish state is not because it means relinquishing the “right of return.” It is the other way around: they won’t relinquish the “right of return” because it would mean accepting a Jewish state. Nor is this simply a matter of substituting the converse for the Journal’s formulation. Rather, it reflects a fundamental point that Ron Dermer (then one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest aides and currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.) made in a May 2009 AIPAC presentation. Dermer’s point was that the “core issue” in the conflict was not refugees, but recognition:   

The half of the Palestinian polity that is not openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction is unwilling to recognize Israel as the Jewish state … For those of you who think that this has anything to do with the refugee issue — you’re wrong. In 1947, there wasn’t a single refugee, and the Palestinian and the Arab world was not willing to recognize a nation state for the Jewish people. That is a core issue, the core issue …

The Palestinians use a definition of “refugee” that makes their “refugeehood” hereditary. Other refugees get resettled; Palestinian refugees get born. They may have never lived in Israel, but they are classified as “refugees” at birth, on grounds that their grandparents (or great grandparents) were refugees 65 years ago. This is why each year the number of Palestinian refugees increases, while the number of other refugees in the world decreases. The Palestinians have been repeatedly offered a state to which their refugees could “return,” but they repeatedly reject it, clinging to a specious “right” of “return” to Israel not because it is necessary for the “refugees,” but because it is a tool in the fight against the Jewish state.

The latest tactic is the Palestinian assertion (swallowed whole by the New York Times) that recognition of a Jewish state is a new issue, allegedly raised by Netanyahu to prevent peace. It is a Big Lie. Last Wednesday Ambassador Dennis Ross, speaking on “Israel, America, and the Middle East: Challenges for 2014,” summarized the Israeli position (my transcription and italics):

From the Israeli standpoint, they say look, if you believe in two states, why is it that Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people is something that you can’t accept? Why is it that self-determination for the Jewish people in a part of historic Palestine is something that you can’t embrace? And it’s pretty fundamental.

When I hear it said that this is the first time this issue has been raised – the people who say that think that no one knows history.  Now maybe it’s true that most people don’t know history. But they should never say it to me. When we were at Camp David, this issue was raised. In the period after Camp David, before we did the Clinton Parameters, this issue was raised. This issue has been raised for obvious reasons. From the Israeli standpoint, there is a need to know that the Palestinians are committed to two states, meaning in fact that one state is Palestinian and one is the state of the Jewish people. They need to know the Palestinians are not about two states, one Palestinian and one bi-national.

In 1947, the Jews accepted the UN two-state resolution; the Arabs not only rejected it, but started a war the next day. In 1948, when Israel declared itself a state, the Arab states sent their armies in, seeking to destroy it. Instead, they created a “catastrophe” for themselves. More than 65 years later, the Palestinians and their Arab allies still reject a Jewish state. They need to recognize it, not only for Israel’s benefit but their own: it is the necessary first step on their long road back from the self-created “catastrophe.” For the reasons succinctly stated in Ambassador Ross’s summary, no “two-state solution” is possible until they take that first step. But the Palestinians appear to have already made it clear they will not miss the opportunity to say “no” once again.

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