It is time for the Palestinians to join their fellow Arabs in accepting the existence of the State of Israel and negotiating a peace with it.
In a year marked by so much misery and misfortune, a rare bright spot has been Israel’s historic diplomatic breakthroughs. In 2020, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and now Bhutan have either established official relations with Israel or announced their intention to do so for the first time.
In 1977, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke through Israel’s regional isolation with his dramatic visit to Jerusalem. The Israeli people and government responded with far reaching concessions that led to a peace treaty with Egypt — for many years the only such treaty between Israel and any Arab country.
Now the number of such countries with full relations or on the road to that status is six and growing. But the Palestinians are not yet on board. For decades, the operating assumption was that peace with the Arab world was contingent on a signed agreement acceptable to the Palestinians. That is no longer the case. Nevertheless, peace with the Palestinians is not only desirable; it is essential for Israel to be truly at peace and an accepted part of the Middle East.
To achieve peace with the Palestinians, many years of demonization and delegitimization of Israel in the Palestinian media, mosques and schools will have to be overcome. The thorniest obstacle is the continued official Palestinian adherence to the so-called “right of return,” the demand that more than 5 million Palestinians who are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war be permitted to “return” to their original homes in what is now Israel. Such an eventuality would alter the demographic nature of Israel and would effectively end its existence as a democratic Jewish state. Of course, no Israeli government would ever acquiesce to a demand that would lead to the country’s demise.
The United States has long recognized that the “right of return” is a non-starter and will never be part of a final settlement. The “Clinton Parameters” were issued by President Bill Clinton on his way out of office in 2001, as a template for a peace settlement. The Parameters “required the Palestinians to waive their claim to an unlimited ‘right of return’ to Israel proper. The Palestinian state would accept all refugees wishing to settle in its territory … One should not expect Israel to acknowledge an unlimited right of return to present-day Israel, as that would undermine the very foundations of the Israeli state or the whole reason for creating the Palestinian state …”
Similarly, an official letter from President George W. Bush to Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon in 2005, stated: “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
Finally, the Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace” reiterated this concept, stating: “There shall be no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel … Palestinian refugees will be given a choice to live within the future State of Palestine, integrate into the countries where they currently live or resettle in a third country.”
Unfortunately, instead of playing a constructive role in advancing the prospect of a two-state solution, the United Nations explicitly encourages the Palestinians to maintain the demand of a “right of return.” For the past 45 years, the U.N. has repeatedly demonstrated its opposition to the Jewish state and has created an infrastructure to perpetuate anti-Israel propaganda. In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly passed its infamous resolution scurrilously labeling Zionism as a form of racism. This resolution led to the creation of two unique and nefarious institutions within the U.N. system: the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) and its staff body, the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR).
“Zionism is Racism” was repealed (at the urging of the United States) in 1991. But its operational arms, the CEIRPP and the DPR, continue their damaging work to this day. Operating under an annual budget of approximately $3 million (reauthorized and funded every year), CEIRPP and DPR do nothing but disseminate harsh anti-Israel propaganda, and organize one-sided international conferences that attack Israel, advance the maximalist and one-sided Palestinian narrative, and compare Israel to apartheid South Africa. They also openly encourage the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Significantly, the mission statements of these U.N. bodies explicitly endorse the “right of return.”
Thus, the U.N. propaganda apparatus gives this major obstacle to peace the official imprimatur of the international community. Under these circumstances, why would the Palestinians ever give up this demand?
Yet every year, the resolutions authorizing these bodies pass in the General Assembly by large majorities. It is highly unlikely that many of the leaders of the countries voting in favor of these bodies are aware of their true nature or of their activities.
It is time for the Palestinians to join their fellow Arabs in accepting the existence of the State of Israel and negotiating a peace with it. Such a peace would greatly benefit Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab states and the world as a whole.
A good first step would be abandoning the baseless claim of a “right of return.” But for this to happen, the international community, including the United Nations, needs to stop recklessly coddling Palestinian rhetoric and activities, particularly the “right of return.” The first step would be for the U.N. to stop funding CEIRPP and DPR.
One optimistic sign: Over the past two years, more than a dozen European states have voted against the resolution authorizing the Palestine Division. As a result, support for that resolution has plummeted, from 114 yes votes in 2011 to only 82 this year — far less than half of the number of General Assembly members.
The best contribution that the United Nations can make to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is to permanently close down these anachronistic and obstructionist bodies.
Richard P. Schifter is chair and Gil Kapen is deputy director of the American Jewish International Relations Institute-Bnai Brith International. Kapen grew up in Metro Detroit.