Peace: So far and yet so close

If the issue of Palestinian "right of return" is resolved, the rest will follow naturally.

By MICHAEL FELSEN
July 19, 2011 22:50
3 minute read.
Palestinian Flag

Palestinian Flag 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Quartet – the US, Russia, the EU, and the U.N. – this week announced that it hasn’t yet found the way to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. And according to Haaretz, Israeli and Palestinian sources concur that intensive US efforts to create an agreed outline for renewed negotiations have failed.

Meanwhile, senior officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah confirm that the PA leadership is determined to push for a UN vote on statehood, based on its belief that resumption of talks is no longer possible. In response, the Israeli government, the organized American Jewish community, and the US House of Representatives – that passed a resolution a few weeks ago threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it persists in its push for UN recognition – are barring no holds in the effort to block the Palestinian move.

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On the face of it, none of this bodes particularly well for a prompt resolution of the conflict.But are the straits necessarily so dire?

Perhaps not. In fact, a number of Israeli policy gurus (among them Yossi Alpher, Colette Avital, Shlomo Gazi, and Mark Heller, in a June 24 N.Y. Times opinion piece, echoed in a similar column by the Times’ Tom Friedman) view the Palestinian quest for recognition not as a threat to Israel’s survival but as an opportunity to “reaffirm support for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples” In other words, rather than fight the UN recognition vote as a unilateral Palestinian assault, why not constructively engage with it in an effort to move the ball forward?

Israel’s defensive posture is in significant measure motivated by a deeply-held unease about its survival as a Jewish homeland, threatened by the specter of the Palestinian refugee ‘right of return.’ In a recent discussion with the Israel Policy Forum, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor underlined the return of Palestinian refugees to the Palestinian state, and not to Israel, as the “crux of the matter” – more important than acknowledgement of the “Jewish state.” On the Palestinian side, no such concession – certainly not in advance of negotiations – is forthcoming. But is this critical issue really irresolvable?

Seemingly not. Bernard Avishai’s important N.Y. Times February 7 article, “The Israel Peace Plan that Still Could Be,” reminds us that the problem was nearly solved in 2008 by Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Both agreed on the principle that a certain number of Palestinians should return, limited in a way that preserves Israel’s distinction as a state with a Jewish majority but that respects the rights of the Arab minority. Only the specific numbers weren’t finalized. And in a July 5 piece in the Forward, Eric Alterman notes that the recently revealed “Palestine Papers” demonstrate a “remarkable willingness of the Palestinian leadership to compromise on fundamental questions once considered unthinkable,” including, in particular, the ‘right’ of return.

Needless to say, model agreements, including especially the Geneva Initiative’s proposed resolution of all outstanding issues -- including the Palestinian refugee right of return– have been crafted by teams of savvy, pragmatic and visionary Israelis and Palestinians, working together in common cause to create a just and lasting peace for both peoples. The Geneva architects address the right of return, as have many other Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders, and also resolve it, consensually, by means that preserve Israel’s status as a Jewish homeland. They treat refugee claims with respect and dignity, principally through financial compensation and the right to return to the State of Palestine. Israel would exercise its sovereign discretion to accept a specific number of refugees, and would consider, as a basis, the average of the total numbers to be accepted by third-party countries.

Yes, today cynicism is easy to justify. But maybe peace is really closer than we think, with paths to it already blazed much of the way. May we urge our leaders to find the will and courage to complete the journey.

The writer is an attorney and president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110- year-old Jewish communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish culture, education and social justice.


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