Among the major barriers to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the so-called right of return. In its broadest formulation, this “right” belongs to some 4 million alleged descendants of the 700,000 or so Palestinian Arabs who left what is now Israel as the result of the war that began when Israel declared statehood in 1948.
Palestinians say the Israeli government used the war as an excuse to chase a significant percentage of its Arab population out of the newly formed Jewish state. Palestinians call this war and its aftermath “al Nakba” – “the catastrophe.”
Israelis insist this catastrophe was self-inflicted. By attacking Israel in a genocidal attempt to push the Jews into the sea, the combined Arab armies created the refugee problem. Israel acknowledges that it forced out some local Palestinians who lived in areas critical to the defense of the new state. But Israel insists that many other Palestinians left of their own volition or at the behest of Arab leaders who promised that the Palestinians would return triumphantly after Israel was defeated.
What is beyond dispute is that many of the refugees – regardless of how they became refugees – were placed in miserable camps and kept there for half a century by the Arab nations in which they sought refuge.
The millions of other refugees who were forced to leave their homes in the decades following World War II – the Sudeten-Germans, the Greeks and Turks, Pakistanis and Indians, and the 700,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries – have all been integrated and normalized. Only the Palestinian refugees have been kept in camps by their Arab hosts. The reason was and is entirely political: to maintain resentment and to hold open the empty promise of a triumphant return that would achieve demographically what the Arab nations have been unable to achieve militarily – destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel sees the right not as an individual, humanitarian claim, but rather as a collective, political assertion designed to turn Israel into another Arab state. In 1949, Egypt’s foreign minister candidly acknowledged: “It is well known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of their homeland, and not as slaves. More explicitly: they intend to annihilate the state of Israel.”
That is why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have been correct in principle when he announced recently that he would never accept a right of return by Palestinian refugees and their descendants. His argument was simple: The Palestinians, aided by the surrounding Arab countries, started a war against the new state of Israel in an effort to destroy it; had they instead accepted the partition – the two-state solution – Israel would have accepted the presence of significant numbers of Palestinians in the new Jewish state. But once the Palestinians started a genocidal war, the inevitable consequence was the creation of refugees. Even if some were in fact forced to leave by Israeli military commanders, such actions were in response to the attack by the Arabs.
The best proof of the correctness of Mr. Olmert’s view is to imagine what would be happening today if the shoe were on the other foot. Imagine if the Palestinians had won and many Israelis had been forced to leave, while others left of their own volition or as the result of fear. Now imagine those Jews seeking a right of return, either in the immediate aftermath of the war or 60 years later. It is inconceivable that a Palestinian state would grant Jewish refugees a right of return. Certainly that would be true if the number of Israeli refugees and their descendants threatened to outnumber the Palestinian population. How can a right of return go only one way? Has Yemen offered its Jewish refugee population any right of return or compensation? Has Egypt? Has Iran? Has Iraq? Has Syria? Of course not.
Of all the post-WWII refugee claims, the Palestinian claim is the weakest, and yet it has received the widest and most vocal support from the United Nations and the international community.
Having concluded that Olmert was right as a matter of principle, I also believe that he may have been wrong as a matter of tactics. The Palestinian narrative, whether factually correct or incorrect, is a reality in the minds of most Palestinians. Earlier Israeli prime ministers recognized that and were prepared to compromise principle for a pragmatic peace. They indicated a willingness to accept some symbolic right of return coupled with compensation. As current Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres once put it: Don’t destroy our enemies’ dream; just don’t let them turn it into our nightmare.
This issue is of great importance in light of the Saudi peace plan, which is ambiguous on the issue of refugees: demanding a just resolution, but not specifying the details of such a resolution. A just resolution could include a guaranteed right of all refugees and their descendants to return to this newly established Palestinian state, while also allowing those actual refugees – but not their relatives – who can prove they were ejected, to be reunited with families that now live in Israel or to be reasonably compensated for their financial losses. A numerical cap would have to be placed on the number of refugees allowed to move to Israel and their entry would be subject to security requirements. A reciprocal right should be accorded to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
For peace to be achieved, pragmatism must be balanced with principle. The right of return should be implemented so as to protect Israel against demographic annihilation without denigrating the Palestinian narrative.
• Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University, is the author of “The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved.“