The Trump Administration has made it very clear that it intends to pursue a Middle East Peace agreement — “the ultimate deal” in the president’s own words. This is certainly a laudable goal, as were all the previous initiatives launched by numerous previous presidents. These all had one thing in common — they failed. While the outcome of the Trump initiative remains to be determined, it is not likely to succeed either without a sober recognition and realization of the single most important obstacle to a lasting peace agreement: namely the Palestinian insistence on a so-called “right of return.”
This is an assertion that is not made lightly. There are certainly numerous issues of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and all are thorny. But the official and popular belief in the “right” to return — not to a future Palestinian state, but to Israel proper — is the ultimate poison pill that will doom any negotiation.
At the Camp David talks in 2000, strenuous, even desperate efforts were made, with the personal and intensive participation of President Bill Clinton, insanely eager to cement a positive legacy, to achieve a historic Israeli-Palestinian accord. These efforts failed, nevertheless, because Yasser Arafat refused to sign a document ending the conflict and foregoing further claims. Clearly, the price demanded by the American mediators — renouncing forever the dream of a single Palestine — “from the River to the Sea” (replacing the State of Israel) — was far too high for Arafat.
Arafat’s successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas (or Abu Mazen), is no more likely to be amenable. When Abbas was interviewed on Israeli television in 2014, he seemed to be signaling to the Israeli people that he would no longer insist on “the right of return.” He stated that although he was born in the ancient city of Safed, he realized that he would never return to live there. “Palestine for me is the ‘67 borders, now and forever … I believe that the West Bank and Gaza are Palestine and the rest is Israel.”
These remarks caused a sensation in Israel and an explosion of optimism. A few days later, after facing a firestorm of outrage and fierce criticism in the Palestinian media and by Hamas, Abbas clarified. Appearing on Egyptian television this time, he said, “My statements about Safed were my private opinion and do not mean giving up the right of return. Nobody can give up the right of return … the issue of the refugees is sacred.”
In point of fact, there is unanimity among the Palestinian factions on this point. Hamas, of course, rejects the existence of Israel and advocates its destruction by force (to be replaced with an Islamic Palestine). But the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Abu Mazen’s Fatah party (widely considered “moderate”) is obviously just as committed to the demand that 5 million Palestinians have the “right” to inundate and overrun Israel. Together with the 1.5 million Israeli Arabs, they would then threaten Israel’s Jewish majority and, by way of democratic elections, Israel would quickly become a majority Arab Palestinian state.
Of course, Israel will never agree to this. But many Palestinians truly believe that time is on their side, and the international community will eventually compel Israel to accept this. Their role model for this scenario is apartheid South Africa. Just as the international community and the United Nations, eventually, after many years of pressure and sanctions, compelled South Africa to surrender, so, according to this logic, will it do to Israel (in their minds, also an apartheid state).
Palestinian Refugee Status
The notion of a “right of return” is indeed treated as a “sacred” one, using President Abbas’ word, across wide swaths of Palestinian society. It is promoted in the media, in the mosques, and — significantly — in Palestinian schools run by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief Works Agency). This is a refugee agency dealing only with Palestinians. All other refugees in the world fall under the rubric of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Unlike all other refugees, Palestinian refugee status is passed on from generation to generation. Fewer than 50,000 Palestinians who originated in Palestine and became refugees after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence are still alive today. Yet, the UNRWA refugee rolls number over 5 million — the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren of the original refugees.
Making this situation all the more absurd, the vast majority of “refugees” serviced by UNRWA in fact live in Gaza and the West Bank, not only areas of historic Palestine, but the very territories intended to form a future Palestinian state. Nowhere else in the world are there refugees living within the borders of their own country. At UNRWA schools, children are taught that Israel usurped their homeland and that they will one day return to their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, etc. (cities situated today within the 1967 borders of Israel).
United Nations Support
The very continued existence of UNRWA in fact, perpetuates the myth that the refugees will return to a Palestinian state supplanting Israel. But in addition to UNRWA, the United Nations itself has, since the mid-1970s, given official sanction and support to this extremist demand. The infamous Nov. 10, 1975, resolution equating Zionism with racism was widely condemned (and it was repealed in 1991). What is certainly less known is that the U.N. General Assembly, at that same 1975 session, established two U.N. bodies that, in the name of the United Nations, give sanction and recognition to the most extreme Palestinian positions, including the demand to implement “the right of return.”
These two institutions are the Division on Palestinian Rights and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP). They are reauthorized every year by large (although diminishing) majorities at the annual U.N. General Assembly. The entire range of activity of these offices consists of defaming Israel, organizing conferences and disseminating information condemning Israel, and otherwise spreading one-sided propaganda consistent with the most extreme Palestinian positions.
Tellingly, the mission statement of the CEIRPP asserts that its goal is “to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their inalienable rights to self-determination without external interference, national independence and sovereignty; and to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced.”
This is an understood reference to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, passed near the end of the 1948 war. The relevant section states that the General Assembly “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return.”
On this basis lays the claim of a Palestinian “right of return.” There are several problems here, however. First, the resolution also was meant to apply to Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries. Furthermore, all six Arab League members then represented at the U.N. General Assembly voted against it (although it passed, nevertheless). And, finally, General Assembly resolutions (unlike Security Council resolutions) are not binding — they are only recommendations. Resolution 194 was clearly overtaken by events.
The Problems POsed
More troubling than the negative role played by the U.N., however, is the lack of understanding among well-meaning people in Europe and in the U.S. of the central problem posed by the continued championing of the “right of return.”
The tendency to sweep this problem under the rug and to assume that the Palestinians will, in the context of negotiations, magically give up this “right” — so ingrained through several generations and so much a part of the Palestinian narrative — is a dangerous self-delusion.
Bill Clinton did not have this problem. After the collapse of the Camp David talks, he published the so called “Clinton Parameters,” now widely considered to be the solid basis for a potential future Mideast peace agreement. These clearly spell out the solution for the refugees: a mechanism for compensation for those choosing to resettle elsewhere; return of refugees to the Palestinian state; recognition by Israel of Palestinian suffering; and no return of any refugees to Israel proper (without the consent of Israel). But when former Secretary of State John Kerry made his famous hour-long speech on the Middle East last December, he made no mention whatsoever of the “right of return.” For too many, this is an inconvenient truth.
It was reported that at a recent meeting with a group of interns, presidential adviser Jared Kushner wondered out loud about why so many previous American peace initiatives have failed and even whether “the ultimate deal” is really possible. He is right to be cautious about this and to try to comprehend why this dispute, among all world national conflicts, seems so insoluble. He would be even wiser to understand that without confronting the “right of return” head-on, he’ll be doomed to repeat the failures of his predecessors.
The eloquent Israeli former Knesset Member and academic Einat Wilf accurately summarized the problem: “Holding on to the ‘right of return’ enables the Palestinians to continue to believe that even if they lose a battle, the war isn’t over. And if the war isn’t over … [they] can still dream of defeating Israel by turning it into an Arab majority state via the ‘right of return.’“
The best thing the new Trump Administration mediators can do for their mission — and for Israelis and Palestinians — is to make it abundantly clear the war is indeed over, and that the “right of return” is not a right at all.
Gil Kapen is a special adviser to the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI) in Washington, D.C., and a former senior Republican staffer of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is originally from West Bloomfield.