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The harsh statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he would not allow a single Palestinian refugee to return to Israel did not bother me much. Knowing what I know about the long-term desires of most Palestinians, the actual implementation of the right of return is not their highest priority. However, Olmert's other statement, that Israel bore no responsibility for causing the refugee problem, clearly reflects the stance of a leader not interested in peace.
I strongly believe that the pre-state armed Zionist groups were responsible for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. My father George Kuttab and his brother Qostandi fled their neighborhood of Musrara (in what is now west Jerusalem) after their sister Hoda's husband, Elias, was killed in front of her and her children.
Israeli-born researcher Ilan Pappe details what happened throughout historic Palestine in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Furthermore, since its establishment, Israel has refused to implement successive UN General Assembly resolutions demanding that it give permission for refugees to return.
I know that the overwhelming majority of refugees prefer to stay where they are or go to the new Palestinian state.
In every Palestinian-Israeli negotiation, while the Palestinian side adhered to the inalienable right of refugees to return to houses and lands where they lived before 1948, it was also willing to make big concessions on how this right would be implemented. The basic demand is not the actual return of all refugees, but that Israel take historic and moral responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.
Contrary to common belief, the issue of the right of return was not the deal breaker in various Palestinian-Israeli talks, whether in Oslo, Camp David or Taba. Issues like Jerusalem and borders were more of a real obstacle.
Jews from around the world, as well as modern-day Israelis, should be the first to understand the difference between the right and the yearning, on the one hand, and the implementation of the right of return, on the other.
FOR 2,000 years Jews were constantly repeating the statement "next year in Jerusalem." No one opposed that Jewish desire and hope, and no one should demand that Palestinians stop having such hope and aspiration.
Modern-day politics, and the interests of peoples and states, do not and should not operate on poetic wishes or prayers. Zionists have repeatedly said that they wanted a state as Jewish as France is French or England is British. The idea of flooding Israel with unwanted hundreds of thousands or millions of non-Jews is not practical and will clearly not happen.
For their part, Palestinian refugees who have been living away from their homes for almost 60 years have already established themselves and have no real desire to live in Israel. When asked in poll after poll if they would want to live in Tel Aviv or Herzliya, next to Hebrew-speaking Jews, almost all answered in the negative.
A poll commissioned by the respected pollster Khalil Shikaki a few years back showed that less than 10 percent of the refugees actually want to return to the areas which today constitute the State of Israel. Most would most likely want to be treated as citizens with equal rights in the countries they are in now, as well as have a recognized right to go to the state of Palestine (no matter its borders) if things turn sour wherever they happen to be.
The one exception to this rule would be refugees living in Lebanon, who are treated as third-class citizens not allowed to work in certain professions. For those, as well as for Palestinians in other countries, living in the independent state of Palestine would be satisfactory. Another possibility for some would be to be offered asylum in a third country, say Canada, Australia or even the US.
That leaves two problems: one symbolic, one political. An admission by a courageous prime minister of the responsibility of Israel for causing the Palestinian refugee problem would neutralize many who have been holding on to their keys and demanding the literal implementation of the right of return. Politically, neutralizing the demand of the right of return can only happen as part of a package deal that includes real Israeli withdrawal and the creation of a sovereign and independent, viable Palestinian state within the 1967 lines.
Negotiations are always about reciprocity. If Israelis wish that none of the Palestinians they kicked out of their homes and lands ever come back, they need at least to recognize their own historical role in creating the refugee problem. If they do that as part of a land-for-peace package agreement, they will discover that Palestinians will be generous in helping them with their own demographic problem.
Once a Palestinian state exists alongside Israel, surely small numbers of refugees can be allowed, as part of a bilateral agreement, to reunite with their families who stayed in what became Israel after 1948.
The writer is a journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.