As the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians lurch forward, the burning question is: will Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank put an end to Palestinian claims? According to an Israel TV scoop, the Palestinians in the current peace talks seem not to have budged an inch on their “right of return.”

Even if Israel is negotiated back to the 1967 lines, will the Palestinians renounce their “right of return”? This issue cannot be brushed aside as rhetoric: it is intimately bound with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Addressing the Knesset recently, Netanyahu dismissed voices in Israel – among them his own Finance Minister Yair Lapid – arguing that Palestinian Authority recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was unnecessary, saying, “The question is not why we are raising this point, but why the Palestinians continue to delay an agreement over this.”

Not content with a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza which they have already declared will be Jewfree, even “moderate” Palestinians reserve the right to turn the Jewish state into a second Arab state, by overwhelming it with millions of returning Palestinian refugees.

“The first act of such a Muslim-majority state would be to repeal Israel’s Law of Return, which entitles Jews, wherever they may be, to automatic Israeli citizenship.

In a 2011 poll 89.5 percent of Palestinians refused to renounce their “right of return.” More recently a Palestinian outcry forced Mahmoud Abbas to backtrack on his offer to an Israeli audience to renounce his personal “right of return” to Safed.

A peace deal foundered in 2000 because the Palestinians did not agree to the principle that their refugees should be repatriated to a state of Palestine.

That’s why Netanyahu is right to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state the quintessential issue.

(PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has said flippantly that Israel can call itself what it likes – but does the Arab side accept Israel’s right to call itself what it likes?) If successive Israeli governments did not insist on this point in the past, it is because Netanyahu has realized that the much vaunted “two-state solution” leaves room for ambiguity. A peace settlement requires “two states for two peoples.”

On the matter of refugees, however, the Israeli government is being less reassuring.

Here the question is not only about ending claims, but ensuring that refugees on both sides get recognition and redress.

Last week, a representative of an association of Jews from Egypt asked chief negotiator Tzipi Livni in a public forum if Palestinian refugee claims were being linked to Jewish refugees in negotiations.

Livni’s answer was disconcerting: “there is no connection between Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees.”

Lest Livni be suffering from a bout of amnesia, let us remind her that the single largest group of refugees created by the Arab-Israeli conflict was not Palestinian.

Almost a million Jews were forced out, not just from east Jerusalem and the West Bank, but Arab lands.

Their pre-Islamic communities were destroyed and their property seized without compensation.

Although over 200,000 Jews were resettled in the West, two sets of refugees exchanged places between Israel and the Arab world. Half the Jewish population are in Israel not because of the Nazis, but the Arabs.

In its conduct of peace negotiations, the Israeli government needs to recall that it is bound by a Knesset law passed in 2010. This statute requires that, as a matter of law and justice, recognition of the Jewish plight and compensation for seized assets many times greater than Palestinian losses must also be included on the peace agenda.

Only by balancing the claims of rival sets of refugees might a deal be struck.

Neither set should return to their countries of origin. Both should be compensated through an international fund, as proposed by Bill Clinton in 2000.

Historically, the Arab side initiated linkage between the two sets of refugees.

Arab states branded their innocent Jewish citizens members of “the Jewish minority of Palestine.” Jews were conflated with Zionists – and became fair game for persecution. The result was the almost complete ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Arab world.

Ironically, Arab leaders were the first to talk of an “exchange of populations,” but while they eagerly expelled their Jews, schemes to absorb Palestinian refugees in Arab lands were never carried out. The latter remain to this day bereft of civil rights, except in Jordan.

If the Palestinians reply that they hold no responsibility for the Jewish refugee problem, Livni must remind them that the Palestinian leadership – notably the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini – played a key part in stirring the anti-Semitism that led to the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries.

Israel took responsibility for successfully resettling its Jewish refugees; it’s time that the Arab side took responsibility for theirs.

It is not enough for Netanyahu to insist on “two states for two peoples.”

The Israeli negotiators must display equal robustness on the question of refugees, and insist that an irrevocable exchange took place. Netanyahu’s strategy must be: two states, and two sets of refugees.

The author is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, a UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.


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