Fix the Saudi plan

The demand to negotiate over a "right of return" to Israel makes the initiative a non-starter and ought to be removed.

Abbas Mecca 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas Mecca 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A flurry of diplomatic activity is gathering speed ahead of the Arab League summit later this month. The US and Israel seem to harbor some hopes that the "Saudi plan," unveiled at a 2002 Beirut summit, will be reintroduced in an improved form. It should be said at the outset that the likelihood of any breakthrough emerging from the Arab summit is extremely slim, given that the Syrian and Palestinian (read Hamas) delegations hold veto power over any decision, normally issued by consensus. This constraint, however, should not stop the US, Europe and Israel from telling the Arab states what is necessary for any peace initiative to be meaningful. While any potential peace negotiation is fraught with difficult problems, what made the Saudi initiative a non-starter ought to be removed: the demand to negotiate over a "right of return" to Israel. In the plan's words, "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." Arab diplomats claim the word "agreed" guarantees that nothing would be forced on Israel. Besides, as one diplomat told this newspaper recently, "No one is saying that all the refugees would go back." All the Palestinians want is for their "right" to be recognized; exercising that right is not necessary, we are assured. To many, the Arab position might sound sensible. So why is it so necessary to not only remove this clause but to begin the process of renouncing any "right" of Palestinians to move to Israel? In 2003, Hebrew University professor and former foreign ministry director-general Shlomo Avineri wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed how a senior German minister explained the problem to Arab counterparts at an international conference. Speaking of the "right of return," the German minister said: "This is an issue with which we in Germany are familiar; may I ask my German colleagues in the audience to raise their hand if they, or their families, were refugees from Eastern Europe?" More than half of the Germans present raised their hands. An estimated 10 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. Together with their descendants, today they make up almost double that number, which is almost one in four Germans. The minister continued: He himself was born in Eastern Europe and his family was expelled in the wake of the anti-German atmosphere after 1945. "But," he added, "neither I nor any of my colleagues claim the right to go back. It is precisely because of that that I can now visit my ancestral hometown and talk to the people who live in the house in which I was born - because they do not feel threatened, because they know I don't want to displace them or take their house." Germans, of course, are not alone. There were about 70 million refugees from World War II, some of whom returned to their homes, but no universal right of return was granted to those who did not. This is especially true when the refugees belong to the side that started, and lost, the war. There is only one formula that will work in this case, that adopted in the "People's Voice" campaign launched by former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon and Palestinian university president Sari Nusseibeh ( "Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only to the State of Israel." This is the only formula that is consistent with the two-state vision, the road map, and Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. If the Arab League were to adopt this formula, moderate Palestinians would be greatly strengthened, Iranian-led radicalism would be dealt a serious blow, and real peace negotiations would suddenly be possible. The US and Israel need to be clear with Arab states that claim they are for peace: The Palestinians cannot extricate themselves from their radical rut alone; they need the Arab states to set a dramatic and powerful example. The Quartet, moreover, should be demanding that the Arab states do so, or be justly blamed for the lack of peace.