The Real Agenda Behind the “Right of Return”

And why its the chief obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Events in Gaza this week illustrated with clarity the primary reason for the failure of the peace process.  As long as the Palestinian national leadership is wedded to the notion of the “Right of Return” to Israel, there is no realistic way to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution.  Hamas’ attempt to mobilize “a march of a million” into Israel, fizzled away.  Most ordinary Gazans were unwilling to become martyrs on behalf of Hamas, but it is not only the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza that is seeking to force the “Right of Return,” through violence. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is likewise unwilling to compromise on an issue that Israel could never accept, since it would spell national suicide for Israel.

Efraim Karsh, writing in Commentary Magazine (May 1, 2001), pointed out that “During a span of six months, from the Camp David summit of July, 2000 to the Taba talks a few days before his crushing electoral defeat in February, 2001, (PM Ehud), Barak crossed every single territorial ‘red line’ upheld by previous Israeli governments in his frenzied quest for an agreement with the Palestinians based on the formula of land for peace.  Unquestioningly accepting the Arab side’s interpretation of the UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967, Barak’s government offered to cede virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip to the nascent Palestinian state, and made breathtaking concessions over Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem.  But, to its amazement, rather than reciprocating this sweeping comprehensive offer of land with a similarly generous offer of peace, the Palestinians responded with wholesale violence.

At Taba, the Palestinians also insisted, with renewed adamancy, on another non-negotiable condition that had been lying somewhat dormant in the background of the Oslo process, began in 1993.  No peace would be possible, they declared, unless Israel guaranteed the right of Arab refugees of the 1948-49 war and their descendants, to return to territory that is now part of the state of Israel, and to be compensated financially for lost property and for decades of privation and suffering.”

Next September will mark the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn.  It was a watershed event in the Palestinian national movement, following almost 100 years of an armed struggle against the Jewish community in Palestine and the State of Israel.  The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which represented the Palestinian national movement, decided at this point to join the “peace process,” supposedly abandoning the armed struggle (i.e. terrorism), and recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” It was a tactical ploy, not a strategic decision to change its ways.  Yasser Arafat demonstrated his insincerity soon after “renouncing terrorism” and recognizing “Israel’s right to exist,” in Geneva, (December, 1988), when 6 months later he authorized a terrorist attack south of Tel Aviv (in Palmachim).

Israeli peace negotiators were so enamored with the “peace process” that they ignored the Palestinian claim of the “right of return,” by choosing to postpone the issue, hoping that it would disappear in time.   The Palestinians however, interpreted the Israelis putting off the issue as an ultimate Israeli agreement to accept in the future.  Since 2008, when PM Olmert exceeded even Barak’s concessions to the Palestinians, the Palestinians, under Mahmoud Abbas, still rejected all the Israeli concessions and in recent years, Abbas has even insisted on pre-conditions for his return to the negotiating table.   

The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in the Palestinian demand of the “Right of Return.” It is the collective belief in the legal and moral right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.  It is central to the Palestinian national identity, forged by decades of indoctrination by the PLO in the Palestinian school system, media, and mosques.  It is also the most potent obstacle to any peace agreement. 

Israelis too, maintain a core belief, which is to keep Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a safe haven for Jews who have been persecuted in Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East.  In fact, the 1948-49 War of Independence produced not only Arab-Palestinian refugees, but even more Jewish refugees from Arab countries.  These Jewish refugees lived in their native Arab states long before the arrival of Islam.  However, unlike the Arab-Palestinian refugees, who were deliberately kept in refugee camps and denied citizenship in Arab countries, Jewish refugees from Arab states were successfully absorbed in Israel despite difficult economic conditions in the early years of the state.

The litmus test for the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the willingness to compromise.  The Zionist leadership was able to accept partition of Palestine in 1947, and again after the Six Day War of 1967, accepted the formula of land for peace, and ultimately the idea of the two-state solution.  The Palestinians, on the other hand, refused partition and chose violence against the Jewish Yeshuv in Palestine, and later against the State of Israel.  And they still refuse to compromise on the “Right of Return,” which has placed a peaceful solution at a dead-end.  While the issues of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are solvable, there cannot be a solution to the “right of Return” other than the Jewish state committing demographic suicide. 

The Palestinian national movement represented by the PLO is incapable of reaching a peaceful political solution with Israel as long they demand the “Right of Return.” As a result, they might eventually return to the armed struggle option, which its leaders find more comfortable, albeit, it might jeopardize the lucrative cash payments they receive from the aid packages the EU and others provide them with.  At this time however, Mahmoud Abbas and his regime are not ready to take up arms.  The Hamas leadership is also not opting for a confrontation with Israel by firing missiles. 

Addressing the Palestinian Central Council in Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, characterized Israel in his speech as “a colonial enterprise” that is bound to disappear.  This kind of rhetoric is at the heart of the Palestinian problem.  Abbas is deceiving his Palestinian people with an historical falsehood, and unrealistic expectations.  Israel is a reality that is visible to all. Israelis are here to stay. They have nowhere else to go.  They have forged a distinct peoplehood and culture that is permanent and solid.  In order to advance the Palestinian project, Palestinians must undergo an historical and ideological transformation that will enable them to look realistically at Israel.  Perhaps then a compromise will be possible, and the “Right of Return” will be an option to return to a Palestinian state - not to Israel.

In the meantime, the Palestinians and Hamas in particular, have learned the hard and bloody way…that they cannot exercise the “Right of Return” by force.

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