Reconciling with return

If Israeli, Palestinian leaders lack will to make painful concessions, peace proponents lack restraint to focus only on concessions that peace truly requires.

Netanyahu and Kerry, March 31, 2014. (photo credit: DAVID AZAGURY, US EMBASSY TEL AVIV)
Netanyahu and Kerry, March 31, 2014.
The breakdown in Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations is due – at least under the prevailing US view – to the parties’ ongoing failure to recognize “the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary for peace.”
But if Israeli and Palestinian leaders lack the will to engage in painful concessions, peace proponents lack the restraint to focus only on those concessions that peace truly requires.
Instead, their efforts have broadened to encompass a noxious campaign against the “dream of return” – that is, the competing Israeli and Palestinian aspirations to occupy all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Thus, prior to the suspension of talks Israel’s chief negotiator suggested that, for peace to have a chance, Palestinian refugees needed to give up the keys to their old homes in Israel proper.
Meanwhile, her Palestinian counterpart argued that Israelis needed to cease calling cities in the occupied territories by their biblical Jewish names. Echoing these sentiments with less partisan rancor, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen asserted in February that the Jewish ideal of reoccupying Greater Israel had to “wither” to make way for peace.
But these recommendations are as needless as they are self-defeating. Not only can the peace process fully accommodate the ideals these peace proponents so strenuously oppose, it can benefit tremendously by doing so.
The well-known parameters of the two-state solution – Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, Palestinian security commitments, borders premised on 1967 lines with some territorial swaps, an end to all outstanding claims – only circumscribe the means of pursuing the dream of return. They are silent with regard to the dream itself. To date, peace proponents have filled that void with animus, but a bit of understanding, expressly incorporated into a negotiated accord, would go a much longer way.
Just two sentences would suffice: one for Israel to recognize the historic importance to the Jewish people of the dream of return; the other for the Palestinian Authority to do the same for Palestinians.
Without jeopardizing any other aspect of the traditional two-state blueprint, these additions would introduce a new outlet for deep-seated ideological sentiments to surface and vent. Within this revised framework, the parties would still agree to forsake violent tactics and unilateral land grabs; they would just be free to simultaneously maintain among the pillars of their national identities the goal of territorial expansion as well.
To peace advocates, this may sound like a disastrous concession, but it is really only a concession to reality. After all, popular affinity for the dream of return (or any other cultural precept) can never be undone by diplomatic fiat. Barring any expression of that dream from the negotiating table therefore defeats the purpose. Instead of marginalizing the ideals of return, it arouses suspicion that the other side is double-dealing and aids holdouts in portraying peace proponents as traitors to the national faith.
By formally obliging these ideals, on the other hand, a treaty would empower the states, at the expense of the fringes, to lay claim to the enterprise of return and to rein in the reckless and hostile forms of struggle being waged in its name.
Yes, it might challenge our sense of decorum to permit nations to openly set their sights on one another’s sovereign lands, but, so long as the parties commit to the strictures of bilateralism and nonaggression, peace will endure their bad tact.
Undoubtedly, there will also be voices in Israeli and Palestinian society – presumably emanating from pro-settler and terrorist camps – that contend that the dream of return is mere fantasy absent the tactics of settlement and armed struggle.
This argument, however, ignores the diminishing returns these tactics already yield, let alone the mounting economic, social and environmental toll they exact. By now, the contours of the Israeli and Palestinian states, though not quite definitive, are simply too concrete and too entrenched to be materially altered by new settlements or intifadas. However, borders can always be redrawn by mutual consent. And herein springs the hope which peace can nourish: that in the long term, after decades, if not generations of reconciliation, one side or the other will eventually grow more amenable to granting territorial concessions.
It may not sound like much, but this modest hope – which at least offers a coherent path toward a greater return – is markedly preferable to what any alternative can credibly offer.
Moreover, if Jewish history offers any example, a people’s ideological aspirations can subsist on far less, for far longer.
Of course, besides the peaceniks and the ideologues, in the wake of another aborted round of talks, there will also be those who question the basic resolve of the parties to advance any framework for peace, regardless of the ideals it recognizes. But it is precisely as to this question of will that the dream of return has its most significant impact. By drawing on its logic, negotiators can fundamentally recast the nature and purpose of the peace process, transforming it from a bitter pill compelled by stark realities to a rite of passage guided by affirmative ideals.
Under this new framework, statesmen can at last do more than merely acquiesce to the pressing need for concessions; they can earnestly pursue them as a means for their people to continue their efforts for the Land “with renewed courage, and better prospects than ever before.”
This was precisely the appeal Theodor Herzl made over a hundred years ago when, prior to the founding of Israel and in the face of a swelling global tide of anti-Semitism, he proposed testing the viability of a temporary state outside of the biblical homeland. Then, as now, the appeal and its ostensible disavowal of return inspired dogmatic opposition. Now, as then, it can help overcome the dogma and galvanize a renewed movement that embraces both ideology and common sense.
This proposed framework, of course,