Adi Schwartz, an Israeli journalist and coauthor (with former Israeli Knesset member Einat Wilf) of the new book The War of Return, spoke to participants in a May 4 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the centrality of the refugee issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For many years, Schwartz explained, efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians were premised on the land-for-peace formula, whereby "Israel was supposed to cede territory or some of the territory that it captured in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians were supposed to establish their state." Various proposals to this effect were offered by Israel prime ministers, notably Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. Discussions along these lines were even held "not so long ago" during the Obama presidency. The problem with the land-for-peace proposals, as with various partition plans predating Israel's 1948-49 War of Independence, "is that the Palestinians did not say yes," said Schwartz.
Most outsiders see the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a conflict between two ethnic groups with competing rights over the same territory, and therefore dividing the land seems a reasonable solution.
"But the Palestinian perspective is very different." Palestinians see it as a conflict between one group with "exclusive rights over the entire land" and another group, the Jews, "with no rights whatsoever." When Palestinians call for justice, "they mean that the Jews ... can only be a minority as they were for hundreds of years ... Jews cannot be sovereign in any part of the land."
For reasons that draw from Islamic theology and pan-Arab solidarities,
the notion that the Jews can have a piece of land amidst what's has been called an Arab and Muslim world is anathema. There is no way. And for that matter, it's not important how large the Jewish state would be. ... They cannot live with a sovereign Jewish state with Jews being, as the Israeli declaration of independence says, "Masters of their fate, just like any other nation." Inside the Muslim psyche, Jews are a minority, they're tolerated. Okay. It means that they can keep kosher food and bury their dead according to the rules. But leading armies, being prime ministers, ... what we call affairs d'etat, state matters – no, not at all.
"This is what explains the rejection of all the partition plans – 37, 47, Camp David, Abu Mazen, Arafat – this is the explanation."
While various Palestinian leaders have been willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state on some portion of this land, they have not been willing to concede the right of Jews to have sovereignty over any portion of the land. This refusal is expressed through their demand that any Palestinian descended from those who fled their homes during Israel's War of Independence has the right to "return" there upon the conclusion of a peace settlement. Although only a small fraction of the estimated 711,000 refugees from that war are still alive, their descendants number upwards of 5.5 million. Transferring this larger body of so-called "refugees" into Israel would make Jews a minority there, regardless of where its borders are established, which is why Palestinians have refused to relinquish the so-called "right of return." It's "a synonym for the fact that they cannot accept Jewish sovereignty over any part of the land."
It is also why the Palestinians and broader Arab world have resisted the integration of refugee descendants into the countries where they were born. "The Palestinians do not want to solve this problem ... They're adamant on this, that each and every one of the refugees has the personal right to decide whether or not he wants to return."
Western governments have "indulged [the Palestinian] dream of one day destroying Israel."
To make matters worse, Western governments have "indulged this dream of one day destroying Israel" by helping to keep the "refugee" problem alive through their funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). UNRWA has registered more than 5.5 million Palestinians as "refugees" despite the fact that the vast majority are not refugees under the internationally accepted definition of the term and all but around 1.5 million are integrated into their host countries (40% are Jordanian citizens). Rather than seeking to rehabilitate this remainder, UNRWA functions to perpetuate their limbo.
If the international community wants to promote an eventual two-state solution, it must stop indulging the Palestinians' dreams of mass relocation to Israel, said Schwartz. He applauded the Trump administration's decision to end U.S. funding of UNRWA as "a very good move forward" and was optimistic that it's possible to "pressure more countries in Europe" who "are not very happy" with the institution to do the same.
Schwartz suggested that pressure on Palestinian leaders to drop the "right of return" in the years ahead could also come from the Arab world, much of which has adopted a more accommodationist posture toward Israel amid the rising threat of Iran. "I think that many people, perhaps in Saudi Arabia, perhaps in the Gulf states are willing to press the Palestinians more and more and tell them, 'Listen, guys, this is it, this is what you're going to get and stop with this fantasy of destroying the state of Israel'," he explained. "I think that at the right moment with the right atmosphere ... even absorbing the refugees could be a realist scenario."