March 26, 2007

Right Of Return Negotiable?

For decades, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians foundered mostly on the demand for the right of return -- the right of refugees of the original partition that created Israel and their descendants to return to their lands inside Israel. The Israelis refused to consider it, as it would amount to nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a political entity, and the Palestinians refused to proceed without it. It helped caused the collapse of the Wye accord, even after Ehud Barak suggested further land swaps in exchange for dropping the demand. Until now, it has been a showstopper for both sides.

Now, though, the New York Times reports that the Palestinians have begun to accept the fact that they will never return to those lands -- and many do not want to do so anyway. Instead, they seek recognition of their displacement and could accept a deal without the return:

A resident of a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, Mr. Abu Ghneim, like most Arabs, says there can be no peace with Israel until he and 700,000 other Palestinians are permitted back to the homes they left in the 1948 fighting that led to Israel’s creation.

But with the Arab League expected to focus later this week on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, there is another, albeit quieter, approach being voiced, especially by younger and wealthier Palestinians: it may be neither possible nor desirable to go back.

“Every time people talk peace, you hear discussion of this subject,” said Hanin Abu Rub, 33, a Web content manager at a Jordanian Internet startup, Shoofeetv, who has been active in Palestinian politics. “But now it is a major part of the discussions we have. When people think, ‘Is it possible for us to go back?’ deep inside they now know they are not going back.”

Even having such a debate — rethinking a sacred principle — was once impossible. Now the discussion is centering on how to define the right of return in a new way. Some have come to see the issue as two separate demands: the acceptance, by Israel, that its creation caused the displacement and plight of the Palestinians; and the ability to move back to the lands they or their families left.

Almost no Palestinian questions the demand for Israel’s recognition of the right to return; many, however, now say returning is becoming less and less feasible.

The return has never been feasible. Israel could not absorb millions of Palestinians back into the country and still expect to maintain its security, let alone its construct as a Jewish homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Arab lands with little more than their lives, and they and their descendants made their homes in Israel. Ask about the Jews of Baghdad and Hebron and many other places, and one will have to ask what happened to their right of return.

The Palestinians will never see their lot improve until they release themselves from this fantasy, and it appears they have begun to do so. Israel and the West would gladly give compensation for the refugees and their descendants to resolve the question of return, if for no other reason to get the issue off the table so progress can begin on the two-state solution. One could argue that all of the aid the Palestinians have received since Oslo -- which got cut off after the Palestinians elected a terrorist group to govern themselves -- would have been that compensation, but it would still be worth it to pony up a complete financial settlement of this demand.

The question remains whether the leadership the Palestinians elected will agree to it. Neither the PLO nor Hamas have given up on the right of return, and Hamas won't even recognize that Israel exists. Their ratification of radicalism a year ago belies the moderation that the Times reports today. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but it does mean that the Palestinians have not acted on this new impulse before.

Where are the moderate politicians representing this new way of thinking? Where are the political parties arising on the impulse for peace and moderation? Until the Palestinians elect leadership of this stripe, it will make little immediate difference whether a significant number of them will forego the return. Their elected government hasn't even agreed to forego terrorism, let alone negotiate away one of their key demands.

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post reports that two-thirds of Palestinians think that electing Hamas was a mistake, and a third overall want to emigrate outside of the territories:

More than two thirds of Palestinians feel Hamas has failed at running the government, according to a poll conducted in the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported on Monday. Over half of those surveyed felt that Hamas gave up a significant part of the group's election platform by joining the new unity government with Fatah.

In addition, less than a quarter of those surveyed said they would vote for the party again if elections were held now.

Did you catch the significance there? A majority of Palestinians felt that Hamas moderated itself too much by bringing Fatah into a unity government. Sounds like they still have a long way to go -- and almost a third of them want to start immediately.


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Right Of Return Negotiable? Ed Morrissey For decades, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians foundered mostly on the demand for the right of return -- the right of refugees of the original partition that created Israel and their descendants [Read More]

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Comments (5)

Posted by stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 26, 2007 6:37 AM

Ham Ass and "moderate politicians" sounds like a oxymoron.

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 26, 2007 8:43 AM

How safe is it to publically advocate "moderation" in a culture that still believes that assasination is just another option available to anyone with a grievance. How would any of us like to be the first to break ranks with the "righteous" martyrs of our nieghborhood?

I think if anybody serious want's to actually negotiate something of value in their position in order to make some progress, they first need to be recognized for shear courage. Then they need to be lent all the credibility we can offer them.

Posted by Nathan [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 26, 2007 10:39 AM

I think it's possible there could be some misinterpretation going on here. Palestinians could be upset that Hamas has moderated its position toward Israel, but actually I wonder if what they're upset about isn't that Hamas has failed to deliver in other policy areas - i.e., social services. After Hamas was elected, it was widely reported that they were elected because of dissatisfaction with Fatah corruption and because Hamas had promised to deliver needed social services and improve the economic/social conditions within the Territories.

I think we'd really need to see what compromises with Fatah the Palestinians are upset about. It might not be so much about Israel as it is about their economy and their social situation.

Posted by Jake [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 26, 2007 12:18 PM

By saying that the Palestinians left "in the fighting that led to Israel's creation," the article makes it sound like the Israelis made the Palestinians get out, or that it was somehow the Israelis' doing that all these Palestinians were displaced.

I thought that the Palestinians left their homes in, or in anticipation of, the fighting that took place because of Israel's creation, as opposed to the fighting that led to Israel's creation. As approval for statehood was imminent, the Arab countries geared up for war and warned the Palestinians that they should remove themselves from Israel and that they could return after the Arabs won the war.

Posted by Cynic [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 26, 2007 12:43 PM

"The Palestinians will never see their lot improve until they release themselves from this fantasy, ..."

One must remember that it was the Arab world that insisted on the right of return and instilled in the newly created Palestian people this fantasy.
The UN also abetted the keeping of those Palestinians who left their homes when the Arabs went to war by forcing Israel to stop building proper housing and supplying infrastructure for the refugees:

"Why Palestinians Still Live in Refugee Camps"

What is perhaps surprising is that the United Nations also opposed the program, and passed harsh resolutions demanding that Israel remove the Palestinians from their new homes and return them to the squalid camps. For example, UN General Assembly Resolution 31/15 of Nov. 23, 1976:

Calls once more upon Israel:

(a) To take effective steps immediately for the return of the refugees concerned to the camps from which they were removed in the Gaza Strip and to provide adequate shelters for their accommodation;

(b) To desist from further removal of refuges and destruction of their shelters.

Similarly, UNGA Resolution 34/52 of November 23, 1979 declared that:

measures to resettle Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip away from their homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right to return; ........."