From Israel’s point of view, the “two-state/land for peace” solution to the Palestinian conflict has proven to be a long, drawn out failure that should have been abandoned long ago. It is only because many prominent political figures have foolishly mortgaged their personal and professional prestige in the name of this unworkable position that it manages to remain a live option – to the grave detriment of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Any dispassionate evaluation of the events of the past two decades invariably leads one to accept the following conclusion: that the Palestinians seem far more focused on annulling Jewish political independence than attaining Palestinian political independence. That is to say, Palestinians are far more committed to the deconstruction of the Jewish State than to construction of a Palestinian one.
However, no matter how convincingly one can show that the Palestinians as a national entity have failed to create their own national destiny, a stark reality remains: there are hundreds of thousands of essentially disenfranchised Palestinian families residing both in Israeli territory and in the wider Arab world.
Addressing this situation requires a comprehensive solution comprised of three constituent elements, all eminently consistent with liberal political doctrine. Two involve eliminating discriminatory practices against the Palestinians as refugees and as residents in Arab countries. The third involves facilitating free choice for individual Palestinians to determine their own future.
Eliminating the UNRWA
As Daniel Pipes has pointed out, the persistence and scale of the Palestinian refugee problem is, to a large degree, an artificial construct. The UN body under whose auspices all the refugees on the face of the globe fall – except for the Palestinians – is the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A separate institution exists for the Palestinians – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNHCR and UNRWA have widely different definitions for the term “refugee” and widely divergent mandates for dealing with them.
According to the High Commission’s definition, the number of refuges decreases over time, while according to the UNRWA definition, the number increases. This “definition disparity” brings about an astonishing situation: If the High Commission criterion was applied to the Palestinians, the number of refugees would shrink dramatically to around 200,000 – i.e., less than 5 percent of the current number of almost 5 million according to the UNRWA definition.
Moreover, while the mandate of the UNHCR permits the body to seek permanent solutions for refugees under its auspices, UNRWA is permitted only to provide ongoing humanitarian aid for the ever-increasing population of Palestinians. Accordingly, while UNHCR operates to dissipate the problems of the refugees under its auspices, UNRWA activities serve only to prolong their refugee status and thus, their predicament. Indeed, rather than reduce the dimensions of the refugee problem, UNRWA has actually functioned to perpetuate the refugee status of the Palestinians from one generation to the next. It has create an enduring and expanding culture of dependency, while cultivating an unrealistic fantasy of returning to a home that no longer exists.
As long as the Palestinian refugee problem continues to be treated in what former Congressman Tom Lantos called “this privileged and prolonged manner” it will never be resolved. Accordingly, the first step toward the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem must be the abolition of UNRWA and the transfer of responsibility for the matter to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This move will facilitate the gradual tapering off of support for what should be a decreasing Palestinian refugee population.
Eliminating Arab Discrimination against Palestinians
Throughout the Arab world, the Palestinians are subject to blatant discrimination with regard to employment opportunities, property ownership, freedom of movement, and acquisition of citizenship. For example, Saudi Arabia in 2004 announced it was introducing measures to ease the attainment of Saudi citizenship for all foreigners who were residing in the country except Palestinians, half a million of whom live in the kingdom.
Similar policies of discrimination are prevalent in other Arab states. A 2004 Los Angeles Times report painted a grim picture of the life Palestinians are forced to endure among the Arab “brethren.” According to the report, Palestinians in Egypt suffer restrictions on employment, education, and owning property, and when Egypt announced in 2003 that it would grant nationality to children of Egyptian mothers married to foreigners, Palestinians were excluded. In Lebanon, meanwhile, nearly 400,000 Palestinians live in 12 “refugee camps,” where crime is rife and clashes between rival Palestinian factions are common. Palestinians cannot own property or get state health care. According to Tayseer Nasrallah, head of the Palestinian Refugee Rights Committee in the West Bank, Lebanon bans refugees from 72 areas of employment, including medicine and engineering. Syria, with a population of 18 million, is a strong verbal supporter of the Palestinian cause, but refuses citizenship to its 410,000 Palestinian refugees. Even in Jordan, where Palestinians comprise nearly 70% of the population, Palestinians complain that they are discriminated against in terms of employment.
When approached on this issue of discrimination against the Palestinian residents in Arab countries, Hisham Youssef, spokesman for the 22-nation Arab League, openly acknowledged that Palestinians live “in very bad conditions,” but claimed the policy is meant “to preserve their Palestinian identity.” He went on to explain with perhaps unintended candor: “If every Palestinian who sought refuge in a certain country was integrated and accommodated into that country, there won’t be any reason for them to return to Palestine.”
But according to a survey conducted by the well-known Palestinian pollster, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, most Palestinians were less interested in being nationalist standard-bearers than in living fuller lives. This view resonates strongly with opinion samples gathered by the leading Arab television stations Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera of Palestinians living in the various Arab states, the vast majority of whom very much want to become citizens in the their respective countries of residence.
This clearly seems to indicate that Palestinian national identity is something more jealously guarded by non-Palestinian Arabs rather than the Palestinians themselves.
It is only the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that allows the Arab countries to continue to keep the Palestinians within their borders in their situation of suspended stateless animation. For while its mandate prevents finding a permanent solution for the Palestinian residents in these countries, it is the ongoing humanitarian aid that it provides for an ever-increasing client population that permits the host governments to sustain their discriminatory policy toward their Palestinian “guests,” to perpetuate their inferior status, and to allow their situation to languish and fester.
Allowing Individual Palestinians the Exercise of Free Will
If the first two elements of the proposed solution – abolishing the UNRWA and attacking the discrimination Palestinian émigrés suffer in other Arab countries – are directed mainly toward easing the plight the Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza, a third element is aimed directly and exclusively at those living inside these areas.
After decades of disastrous failure, it should be clear that there is little chance of resolving the Palestinian issue if we continue to consider Palestinians as a cohesive entity with which contacts are conducted via some sort of “leadership.” Efforts should therefore be devoted exclusively towards individual Palestinians and towards allowing them, as individuals, free choice as to how to chart their future.
These efforts should be channeled in two major ways:
It should be stipulated that an offer of financially-induced relocation made to a Palestinian political leadership would be vehemently rejected. But the approach suggested here would be made directly by an Israeli (or possibly an appropriately constituted international) entity, to the individual recipients. The scale of the offer would be on the order of the average lifetime earnings in some relevant host country for each family head – i.e. the GDP per capita of such a country multiplied by at least say 40-50 years. (As a comparative yardstick, this would be equivalent to an immigrant bread-winner arriving in the US with 2-2.5 million dollars.)
Thus, each household breadwinner would be confronted with three possible choices: life under the rigors of Israeli rule; life under the harrowing hardships of some Palestinian regime, with commensurately dimmer prospects of a better life for the family; or a sum of money equivalent to the life earning of an average citizen in countries that could serve as an appropriate alternative place of residence – probably, but dominantly Arab or Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, or countries with significant Arab/Moslem communities in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
It is of course possible that elements in the existing Palestinian institutional establishment would embark on a campaign to dissuade their constituencies from accepting any financial package for relocation. However, such harassment could be used to expose the cynicism of Palestinian “leaders” who lack the capability and perhaps even the desire to create a state, but threaten those who want to break the cycle of perpetual refugee-hood.
In fact, there is evidence that supports the plausibility of this proposal. A November 2004 survey commissioned by the Jerusalem Summit and conducted by a reputable Palestinian polling center and in conjunction with a well-know Israeli institute to gauge Palestinians’ willingness to emigrate permanently in exchange for material compensation. Significantly, the poll showed that only 15% of those polled would absolutely refuse to accept any such inducements, while over 70% stated that they would be willing to take the bargain.
The Acceptability of the Offer to the Prospective Host Countries
For the prospective host countries the proposal has considerable potential economic benefits. The Palestinians arriving at their gates will not be impoverished refugees, but relatively prosperous individuals with the equivalent of decades of local per capita GDP in their pockets. Indeed, for every hundred Palestinian families received, the host country could count on around fifteen to twenty million dollars going directly into the private sector. Absorbing 2,500 new Palestinian family units could mean the injection of up to half a billion into local economies often in dire need of such funds.
There are 2.5 to 4 million people in the West Bank and Gaza. The numbers of families/households (the relevant unit for receipt of compensation) would be in a range of 600,000- 800,000.
If each family head were offered a relocation grant of between $ 150,000 to $200,000, this would be the equivalent of several decades, and in some cases centuries, of GNP per capita earnings in any one of a wide range of prospective host destinations (see table). Indeed, even in terms of the average overall world per capita GDP (about $7000 U.S.) – such grants would be the equivalent of up to a quarter of a century GNP per capita. (As mentioned previously, in comparative terms, this would be equivalent to a bread winner arriving in the US with 2-2.5 million dollars.)
In terms of current estimated GNP per capita in the Palestinian administered territories, the grants would be the equivalent of between over a half-century to more than a century of income.
The aggregate cost of the proposal would be between $45 – 80 billion (depending on whether the relocation grant was $100,000 or $200,000). Extending the relocation to the entire Palestinian population would effectively entail doubling the required outlay to $90 –160 billion. Israel’s GNP is around $150 billion. If it were to declare that it was prepared to devote annually 4-6% of its GNP to the resolution of the Palestinian problem – i.e. offering an annual sum of $6-9 billion – the entire project could conceivably be implemented within a decade and a half. (It should be noted that the current Oslo process, with all the enormous expense it has entailed, has been going on for almost two decades, producing only catastrophic failure and tragedy.)
If international donors such as the USA, the EU or OECD countries matched Israel’s input dollar-for-dollar (which would involve contributing only a miniscule portion of these countries’ GNP), the implementation could be sped up considerably, possible within 5 years, without undue burden on the world economy.
In any case, the overall cost of the “two-state-solution” would, in all likelihood, be far greater. For even discounting the increased defense cost that Israel would have to incur if required to return to indefensible pre-1967 frontiers, there would still be huge costs. These would include the immense outlays required for the establishment and maintenance of the required physical infrastructure, and bureaucratic and organizational frameworks needed to make the micro-landlocked Palestinian state viable. Also, it should not be forgotten that if a Palestinian state were ever to be acheived, Arab regimes currently hosting Palestinian populations might begin impatiently (possibly coercively) pressing for their return to their newly established homeland. The cost of relocating a large “refugee” population in the nascent Palestinian state could be huge.
The time has come to recognize that for well over half a century, the Palestinians have been unable to produce a credible, competent, and capable leadership with the capacity to achieve statehood. This is in spite of highly favorable conditions such as robust international support and political pressure brought upon the Israelis.
The choice made time and again by this leadership is to prioritize the elimination of Israel over the creation of “Palestine.” This effort seriously undermines the moral and political bona fides of the Palestinian narrative, which has become the basis not only of Palestinian claims for statehood, but also for the much of the international acrimony directed against Israel.
The time has come to remove the noisome issue of Palestinian statehood from the international agenda, and address the enduring Palestinian humanitarian predicament (after all, there is a majority Palestinian state, which is Jordan); to abandon the approach of relating to the Palestinians as a collective entity. Instead we should treat them as individuals deserving a better fate than the one thrust on them by cynical leaders and neighboring states.
The time has come for imaginative new initiatives to defuse and disperse one of the global community’s most volatile problems.
Offering individual Palestinian families generous relocation grants is a solution that will dramatically and immediately improve the lot of individual Palestinians; defuse the Palestinian humanitarian “crisis”; ensure the continued survival of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; and inject billions of dollars of funds into the economies of low income nations who welcome the Palestinians.
This is a proposal that deserves debate and discussion. As it stands now, the Palestinians have nothing to lose but the chains in which their leaders have imprisoned them.
Martin Sherman is the 2009-2010 visiting Israeli Schusterman scholar at USC/HUC-JIR and the academic director of the Jerusalem Summit. He lectures at Tel Aviv University, served in Israel’s defense establishment and was a ministerial adviser to the Yitzhak Shamir government.