10 essential words

The Arab demand for a "right of return" is utterly asymmetrical.

temple mount israeli fla (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
temple mount israeli fla
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people,just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people." - US President George W. Bush, January 10 (emphasis added) This sentence may seem like nothing new, just another restatement of the two-state vision. But the last 10 words are the key to resolving the conflict, a missing element whose absence has caused the peace process to oscillate between stalemate and war rather than move steadily toward lasting peace. These words are critical because they signal an end to the Arab world's double game. On the one hand, the Arab states and the Palestinians have claimed to embrace the two-state plan. On the other, the Arab side has demanded something that completely negates the most fundamental prerequisite of the two-state concept, namely mutual recognition of each side's national rights. The Arab demand for a "right of return" is utterly asymmetrical; according to this demand, Palestinians have a right to move to Israel, while Jews not only have no right to move to a future Palestinian state, but those who live now within the future borders of that state must leave. This is no ordinary demand. It cannot be solved by drawing different lines on a map. It has nothing to do with borders, but whether the Jewish people have the national right to sovereignty anywhere in the Land of Israel. If Palestinians have a right to move to Israel, and Jews or Israelis can't move to Palestine, then the Palestinians are saying: What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. They are denying Israel's sovereignty and therefore the Jewish state's right to exist. This Palestinian position came to the fore in the run up to Annapolis, when Israel was pressing for a Palestinian statement recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. To some this sounded like an absurd demand - why do the Palestinians need to say anything about Israel's Jewishness? But this Israeli requirement did not come out of thin air, but from the fact that if Israel is not a Jewish state, meaning a state with a large Jewish majority, then it will become another Arab state. For Israel, its Jewish character is not a matter of religious preference - unlike the Arab world, Israel protects religion freedom and respects all holy places - but of existence. In this context, the Arab refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state, along with the denial of Jewish history and of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, is tantamount to rejecting Israel's existence. In April 2004, in a letter to Ariel Sharon as Israel was preparing to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, Bush made a similar commitment: "It seems clear that... a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue... will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel." But this statement was only rarely repeated, and came across as squeezed out under duress in the context of disengagement, rather than a fundamental change in the US position. The significance of Bush's 10 critical words, uttered in Jerusalem on Thursday night as the president declared his confidence that a peace treaty could be signed before the end of his term in January 2009, may be that he has realized that it is not enough for the US to leave the "right of return" as a final-status issue. This demand, he was making plain, must be taken off the table now, because it stands in fundamental contradiction to the entire two-state concept. The more clearly and forcefully Bush repeats these 10 words, the better the chances that the agreement in whose achievement he professes such confidence will indeed be reached. This is so because no Palestinian leader can reach agreement with Israel without preparing his people and the Arab world for abandoning the demand of "return." And why would Mahmoud Abbas do that if even the US will not routinely explain that this demand is not just another negotiating item but a denial of Israel's right to exist? In his weekly radio address Saturday as he continued his swing through the region, Bush said he would be pressing Arab leaders "to do their part" for peace. The Arab states could change the climate completely if they would do two things: meet Israeli leaders and say, as Bush did, that the Jewish people has a right to a state just as the Palestinians do. Such actions cannot wait for an agreement because, without them, there will be no agreement, only more stalemate and war.