The mythical peace that is just out of reach
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Zionism & Israel Center http://zionism-israel.comThe conventional wisdom in much of the world holds that there is an Israeli-Arab peace settlement that is just out of reach - so near yet so far, frustrated only by tactical accidents. We all know what the peace settlement must look like, says the myth. If only Israel wasn't so stubborn about building in Jerusalem or (under Ehud Olmert) not negotiating at all about Jerusalem, there could be peace in a week. But somehow peace, like the lost tribes of Israel in the medieval Jewish myth, remains beyond reach, on the other side of the Sambatyon river in a land that Christian mythology identified with the Kingdom of Prester John. The river throws up rocks of settlements and fire of "misunderstandings" and nobody can pass.
What does the peace settlement look like? We all know, what the peace settlement would look like, don't we? It would look like the Clinton Bridging Proposals, or it would look like the Geneva Accord, or it might even look like the reasonable proposal of Palestinian-American comedian Ray Hanania.
All of those proposals rest on three major principles:
1) The Palestinians give up the so-called "Right of Return" of the descendants of Palestinian refugees of 1948. They can live in the state of Palestine or abroad, or in limited numbers in Israel, but they do not have a "right" to return to Israel and they cannot come to Israel in unlimited numbers.
2) At least some parts of Jerusalem beyond the 1949 armistice line remain under Israeli sovereignty, including the old city Jewish quarter, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Gilo, Har Choma and other areas that are today Jewish neighborhoods.
3) The Palestinians recognize that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, just as the Jews recognize that Palestine is the state of the Palestinian Arab people.
Peace "optimists" tell us that the Palestinians leaders have really agreed or are secretly ready to agree to all these proposals and/or that polls show that the Palestinian people back these concessions. For example, a friend, a knowledgeable journalist, insisted to me that the Geneva initiative "has support from the Palestinian PLO establishment." In fact, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO, rejected the Geneva accord, as did the Israeli government. It is like saying that the Geneva initiative "has support from the Zionist establishment" since Yossi Beilin signed it. A minority of secondary leaders on both sides signed it, and they seem to have understood it differently. Some of the Palestinian signatories denied that it gave up the right of return.
The depressing fact is that all the polls of Palestinians and all the statements of the leaders and all the documents of the PLO and the Fatah have been fairly consistent in giving negative replies to all the issues. The one ray of hope is that some surveys show that the Palestinian people would be willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but only provided that Israel accept Right of Return and give up all of East Jerusalem. This review will focus primarily on the issue of Right of Return, because it is the issue most studied in the polls, and it is the Palestinian demand with the most devastating consequences for Israel. Surveys almost never ask about giving up parts of the West Bank or any part of East Jerusalem. Almost all the results that show Palestinians support a "two state" solution assume in the questions that the "solution" includes right of return, and Israeli concession of all territories taken in 1967, including all of East Jerusalem.
Palestinian Opinion on the Right of Return
Every poll of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza found that 80-90% insist on Right of Return for the refugees, no matter how the question was asked, and whatever the prospects for peace may have been at the time. For example a poll by PCPO in 2008:
Responding to the question: "Do you believe that the Palestinians should be obliged to waive their right of home return in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel ?", (89.8 %) answered "Palestinians shouldn't agree to that, even if the price would be the non-conclusion of an agreement with the Israelis", whilst only (6.8 %) said "Palestinians should agree to that", and (3.3 %) answered "I don't know".
Regarding the additional question:" Should the Palestinian leadership agree to the waiver of the Right of Home Return in exchange of the monetary compensation, would you accept or refuse that?" (89.5 %) answered "I would refuse that", whilst only (7.3 %) said "I would accept that", and (3.2 %) answered "I don't know".
Here is an An Najah university poll from 2006 regarding items in the Prisoner's letter. When asked about: "The need to ------- stress on the right of return and to cling to this right and to call on the international community to implement Resolution 194 which stipulates the right of the refugees to return and to be compensated," 52.4% strongly agreed and 39.7% agreed - over 90% in all.
IPCRI is the oldest Israeli-Palestinian dialog organization. Few people are more optimistic about peace than its co-director, Gershon Baskin. An IPCRI poll in 2001 asked refugees only about their views on Right of Return. A total of 98.6% strongly agreed or agreed that "Lasting peace in the Middle East is tied to the return of the refugees to their homes." A total of 98.7% strongly agreed or agreed that "Compensation is not an alternative to return." A total of 99.8% strongly agreed or agreed that "Return must be to exact places of original residence." Only 5.1% agreed or strongly agreed that "Family reunification can be considered return." Every survey in the West Bank and Gaza strip produced similar results.
Only a single poll gave a somewhat different result. In 2003, Dr Khalil Shikaki conducted a survey of refugees in the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon. The survey has been widely misunderstood and misquoted. Shikaki's PCPSR group did not ask about right of return at all. The survey question assumed that Israel had accepted right of return, and asked what refugees would actually do, under rather unattractive conditions for return to Israel. The question read, "The establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israeli recognition of UN resolution 194 or the right of return. But the two sides would agree on the return of a small number of refugees to Israel in accordance with a timetable that extends for several years. Each refugee family will be able to choose one of the following options:..." The options included settlement in Israel or settlement in the Palestinian state or elsewhere with "fair compensation." Only about 10% chose settlement in Israel under those conditions, but about 60% of those surveyed believed that "fair compensation" they would receive would be between $100,000 and $500,000 - an unrealistic sum. Moreover, the survey question did not specify that those choosing not to go to Israel would relinquish the right to return at a future. date. Even so, Shikaki's office was ransacked and he was personally attacked by angry Palestinians. He was also condemned in numerous editorials.
In summary, about 90% of Palestinians surveyed consistently insist upon the right of Return to Israel and show no sign of relinquishing this demand. A single survey, with dubious findings, has been bandied about to cast doubt on Palestinian "adherence" to right of return. The survey did not even ask about right of return but nonetheless evoked a storm of angry protests from Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders on Right of Return
The position of the Palestinian leadership has been as unbending on the question of Right of Return as that of Palestinian public opinion and there has been no sign whatever that it is changing. "Moderate" Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas explained in a 2000 interview why the Palestinian leadership did not accept Israeli proposals at Camp David.
Regarding Jerusalem and borders, Abbas was clear as can be:
"Our position on the issue of Jerusalem is simple: Jerusalem is part of the territories occupied in 1967 and, hence, Resolution 242 applies to it. Jerusalem must return to our sovereignty and we will establish our capital on it. We have no objection that East and West Jerusalem will be open to one another and cooperate in municipal activities."
Regarding Right of Return, he stated:
"... There is no UN resolution dealing with the Refugee Problem other than General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1949 that states 'compensation should be paid [...] for those who choose not to return.' The right of return has priority and whoever does not wish it, may demand compensation...
...Therefore, compensation should go to those who wish to return as well: compensation for the use of their lands and for their suffering for fifty years and more. Naturally, this compensation should also go to the refugee-hosting states: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and the PA...
It is noteworthy in this matter, and this is also what we clarified to the Israelis, that the Right of Return means a return to Israel and not to the Palestinian State... When we talk about the Right of Return, we talk about the return of refugees to Israel...
Contrary to the position assumed in most surveys, Abbas also stated that Israeli resistance to the demand was based on the fact that it would "alter" Israel's demography. The insistence on right of return is not an accident. It is intended to destroy Israel as a Jewish state.
The Prisoner's letter of 2006 called for convening a conference that would
stress on the right of return and to cling to this right and to call on the international community to implement Resolution 194 which stipulates the right of the refugees to return and to be compensated.
The Fateh foreign policy platform of 2009 refused explicitly to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because it would jeopardize the "rights" of the refugees:
To totally reject recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in order to protect the rights of the refugees.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have never lost an opportunity to reaffirm that they are steadfast in their demand for right of return. These assertions are frequently coupled with reaffirmation of the Palestinian demand for all of East Jerusalem as their capital.
For example, an article in the Palestinian news service Maan, dated August 30, reported on a meeting of the Palestinian cabinet:
The cabinet asserted that the Palestinian people were facing particularly serious challenges that necessitate action, especially on the state of disunity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2007. It urged both sides to unite as one to "achieve the right of return of Palestinian refugees, regain the right of self-determination, and establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its rightful capital."
A news item of WAFA, the PLO news service, dated October 31, 2009 informed us of Abbas that:
He said... that negotiations will not be resumed before halting colonization in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, on the basis of the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.
He affirmed the Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return...
These positions regarding right of return of refugees to Israel and denial of Jewish rights in East Jerusalem, stated so explicitly by Abbas in 2000, supported by the Palestinian public in numerous polls, reiterated at every opportunity by the Palestinian Arab leadership, have not changed. It is absurd to believe that the Palestinians do not mean every word of their demands, that they are lying, or that these are "just opening positions. They refused a solution that included everything but the demands for right of return and all of East Jerusalem in 2000, and started a violent uprising to wreck the "peace process." The Palestinians did not sacrifice thousands of lives in order to defend "opening positions."
There is evidently no hope that these positions will change. Israel can never accept the right of return of Palestinian refugees, since that would mean the end of the Jewish State. Giving up all claims to East Jerusalem would likewise cast doubt on the legitimacy of the state. Therefore, these demands are not conditions for peace. We are forced to conclude, sadly and reluctantly, that the peaceful solution that is just out of reach is a myth created by wishful thinking and encouraged by skillful propaganda.
There cannot be peace until everyone faces these issues squarely and the Palestinian position changes from demands that amount to destruction of Israel to requirements that can be considered a legitimate and serious bargaining position.
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