With Foreign Minister Shimon Peres desperately trying to convince Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to return to the negotiating table, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves why negotiations broke down in the first place.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak's breathtaking offer to return nearly all the territories captured in the 1967 war and redivide Jerusalem was answered with the worst violence that Israel has seen in decades.
Negotiations did not, as Palestinians would have the world believe and as Oslo messianists would have themselves believe, break down over the "settlements" or the "occupation." Barak's offer to end both was rejected in a hail of rocks, bullets and mortar shells. The dictator who rules the Palestinian people was not interested in "ending the conflict" with the Jewish state because, at a minimum, he would have had to abolish the so-called Palestinian "right of return," a price on which even Yossi Sarid, the leader of the most dovish Zionist party, Meretz, continues to insist.
It is obvious to nearly all Israelis why the Palestinian refugees must never be allowed to return to Israel. A refugee community of 600,000 in 1948 has grown to over two million today. Their return would drastically shift the demographic balance within Israel by doubling the percentage of non-Jews from 20% to 40%. Moreover, their higher birthrate would soon make the exercise of Jewish sovereignty a practical impossibility.
But even if Israel were able to limit the numbers actually returning, granting a "right of return" to the refugees would give the Palestinians a far more immediate and devastating victory by effectively denying the "right" of the Jewish state to exist: for it was the refusal of the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state that created the refugee problem in the first place and taking responsibility for their plight would make Israel responsible for the aggression launched against it.
That the Palestinian refugee problem is the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and not the cause of it is plain to even the most revisionist of Israeli historians. While the Jews accepted the UN partition of Palestine into two states - a bitter pill for Jews to swallow having already seen three-quarters of British-ruled Palestine transferred to the Hashemites 25 years earlier - the Palestinians rejected the partition and joined their Arab brethren in a war designed not to establish a Palestinian state, but to annihilate the local Jewish population. Hoping to return after a promised Arab victory, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the scourge of war, while a small percentage were kicked out, primarily to prevent sworn enemies from occupying strategically important sites.
While it is clear why Israelis across the political spectrum reject a "right of return," one might wonder why the Palestinian leadership so steadfastly refuses to compromise on this issue. There are the familiar answers, ranging from a malicious desire to achieve through demography what cannot be achieved militarily, to the fear on the part of Arafat and his henchmen that by agreeing to such a compromise they would be signing their own death warrants.
The current issue of Commentary, in which historian Efraim Karsh shows convincingly why the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" gives new meaning to the word hutzpa, points to another reason. In describing the exodus of Palestinians both before and during the War of Independence, Karsh explains that the Palestinians, particularly their elite, were unwilling to "subordinate personal interest to the common good." Put simply, when the going got tough, the Jews, their backs to the wall and with nowhere to run, dug in their heels and fought. In contrast, the Palestinians turned tail and fled.
In the Arab world, a world in which brothers kill their own sisters to protect their family's honor, such a desertion is especially humiliating. One does not have to spend a great deal of time with Egyptians, Iraqis or Saudis to hear the contempt in which they hold the Palestinians. Not that the Palestinians were the only ones to ever run from a fight. But unlike Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders, the Palestinian leaders do not have the luxury of spinning wild tales of valor in which their leaders always seem to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Palestinian refugee camps are a constant reminder to their leadership of their own cowardice and defeat - a humiliation all the more profound because they brought it upon themselves. Such a stain on Palestinian honor will not be removed by absorbing millions of refugees into the Arab states that host them. That will only make the stain permanent. Rather, the only way to restore Palestinian dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of the Arab world is by granting them a "right of return" - a right that would destroy the Jewish state both in theory and in practice.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post