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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
the Arab side initiated linkage between the two sets of refugees.
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.
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
Israel took responsibility for successfully resettling its
Jewish refugees; it’s time that the Arab side took responsibility for
It is not enough for Netanyahu to insist on “two states for two
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.
author is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, a UK Association of Jews from
the Middle East and North Africa.