Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Issue: The Formulation of a Policy, 1948-1956
by Jacob Tovy
London: Routledge, 2014. 306 pp. $145.
Reviewed by Steven J. Rosen
MEF Washington Project
Middle East Quarterly
This thorough and authoritative account assembles the definitive record of Israel's policy toward the Palestinian refugee issue in the early years of the state. Tovy of the Herzl Institute at the University of Haifa examines the origins of Israel's policy toward repatriation, resettlement, compensation, blocked bank accounts, internal refugees, and family reunification, drawing on declassified archives from government meetings, Knesset committees, and files of the prime minister's advisor on Arab affairs.
Tovy illustrates how, beginning with Israel's creation in 1949, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, came under great pressure to accept the return of large numbers of Arabs displaced during Israel's war of independence. At home, the second largest party in the Knesset, Mapam, a Marxist-Zionist party allied with the Soviet Union, advocated for full repatriation of all Arab refugees. Abroad, the Truman administration initially called upon Israel to accept repatriation of 200,000-250,000 Arab refugees, a number that would have raised the Arab minority in the fledgling state from 13 to 30 percent and created staggering political, economic, and security problems.
The author examines how Ben-Gurion deflected the pressure with a policy that was adroit rather than confrontational. Adamantly opposed to repatriation internally, Ben-Gurion did not, however, declare absolute opposition to the great powers. Instead, he deflated the issue by saying it should be resolved at a peace conference with Israel's Arab neighbors, at which time an appropriate balance between resettlement, compensation, and repatriation would be negotiated. This put the burden on the United States and Britain to bring the Arabs to the table for a realistic dialogue, something the Arabs would not accept.
In Tovy's opinion, Ben-Gurion's approach worked. In just a few months, U.S. policy shifted from pressure on Israel to accept repatriation, to various proposals for an economic solution, to resettlement through regional cooperation. However, this has left the refugee problem unresolved until today but was probably the most that the government of Israel could have achieved in existing circumstances.
Related Topics: History, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians | Steven J. Rosen | Fall 2015 MEQ
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