Palestinian Refugees: Right vs. Reality
In my last article, I argued that the ultimate solution to the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is resettlement and/or compensation. Indeed, given the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its psychological, political, and demographic dimensions, there is simply no other viable solution. Many Palestinians living in and outside the West Bank and Gaza, however, continue to claim that the refugees’ right of return is inalienable. Reacting to the article, Palestinian critics vociferously argued that regardless of how long it might take, they will never abandon their historic right.
My answer is that the solution to the problem cannot be based solely on the Palestinians’ perception of what is historically right or wrong. Traditional claims based on historical accounts cannot be realized because what dictates today’s borders and sovereignty are the political and demographic realities on the ground that cannot be wished away.
The world map would be completely different today if such historical claims were realized. This goes for the Israelis themselves, among whom there are those who lay claim to all of “Greater Israel” on the basis of Biblical or historic accounts, as well as the Palestinians, who have been living on the same land for centuries.
Thus, the mutuality of claims to the same territory by Israelis and Palestinians can no longer be settled by either side acquiring all the territories; given the reality on the ground, the only viable solution rests on sharing the territory. Whereas Jews in Israel moved ahead and established their state in 1948, Palestinian leaders have squandered every opportunity to establish their own state.
They refused the 1947 UN Partition Plan, rejected the late Prime Minister Golda Meir’s offer to return all the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War in exchange for peace and a mutually agreed-upon solution to the future of Jerusalem, and they refused to join the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1977.
Moreover, despite the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians missed a historic opportunity to forge peace in 2000 at Camp David and with the Olmert government in 2008-2009. I attribute the failure of the peace negotiations under the auspices of the Obama administration in 2013-2014 to the leaders on both sides, as neither were willing to make the necessary compromises to make peace.
Sadly, however, the Palestinians never ceased to claim the right of return, which played directly into the hands of the right-wing Israelis who made a convincing argument that the Palestinians seek the destruction of their state by demographic means because they cannot achieve it through the use of force.
I have been supportive of a two-state solution for the past three decades. I have and continue to criticize the Israeli occupation in any form. I have condemned every Israeli government that violated the Palestinians’ human rights, whether it be expropriation of Palestinian land, night raids, incarceration, or undue restriction of mobility. And I criticized in the strongest terms the recent nationalist Israeli Basic Law, which I consider discriminatory and racist.
That said, my field is conflict resolution. I look at every angle that has any implication on the given conflict. Scores of elements enter this equation: historic developments and the narratives supporting or opposing them, the psychological dimension, religious beliefs, prior precedents, and the current state of affairs. Most importantly, I consider the prevailing facts on the ground that are not subject to change short of a catastrophe.
This is what led me to believe that under no circumstances would Israel accept the refugees’ right of return, as this would spell the end of Israel as we know it. If Israel were to remain a democracy, the influx of millions of Palestinians would instantly change the demographic balance between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and thereby the Jewish national identity of the state — the Palestinians would be in full control.
There is not a single political party in Israel, regardless of its political leanings, that supports the one-state solution, precisely for that reason. Those Palestinians who claim that they will continue to fight for another 100 years until they realize their right of return are misguided and extremely damaging to the Palestinian cause.
Every Palestinian must carefully examine what has happened during the past 70 years since the creation of Israel while they were waiting to realize their right of return, and whether they want to wait another 70 years to effectuate this elusive goal.
During this period, by every account Israel became a global power, not only because of its reported possession of nuclear weapons, but because it became a technological giant with a powerful economy and unprecedented advancement in just about every sphere of life — science, agronomy, chemistry, military technology, medicine, ocean and space exploration, and so on.
I maintain that Palestinians are as creative, as capable, and as resourceful as the Israelis are, and can realize all they aspire for. But why then, 70 years later, are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians still languishing in refugee camps, living on handouts, and millions of others poor and despairing? Is it because they are inferior to the Israelis? The answer is categorically no.
The reason is that while Israel was focusing on building a nation and fighting its enemies on all fronts, Palestinian leaders were focused on destroying it. They have betrayed their people by perpetuating the refugee problem for personal political gain while depriving them of every opportunity to utilize their talents, creativity, and resourcefulness to become leaders in their own right in every profession.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians who left the miserable conditions in Palestine and studied abroad achieved tremendous success in the field of their choice, and are making significant contributions to every institution they are associated with.
There was no occupation before 1967 and not a single Israeli settlement was built in the West Bank or Gaza. The Palestinians’ leaders had every opportunity to realize statehood, even for many years following the 1967 war. But they misled their people to believe that their salvation rests on Israel’s destruction rather than on building the infrastructure of an independent state that could flourish and grow, which would have also convinced the Israelis that they want to live side-by-side in peace.
Instead, they incessantly engaged in misleading, old, and tired public narratives about the right of return. They offer their people excuses to justify their dismal failures instead of focusing on building the infrastructure of a viable state and providing opportunities for economic development, as well as building educational, medical, scientific, technological, and social institutions.
Hamas in Gaza provides a glaring example of how corrupt and badly misguided leaders continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on building tunnels and procuring and manufacturing weapons, while the people, young and old, are despairing and destitute.
While believing that the day of Israel’s destruction is near, they are destroying the social fabric of their own communities, from which they will not recover as long as they continue to hold on to this pipe dream.
The prospect of a two-state solution remains the only practical option, based on the 1967 lines with significant land swaps. There is nothing new about this solution, but it takes enlightened Palestinian and Israeli leaders to abandon the dark alley of the past, muster the courage, and accept the inevitability of coexistence.
Sadly, such leaders are currently absent from the political scene, and time is running out.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.