Sociable

Sunday, January 7, 2001

The Fear of Inundation

A number of prominent figures in the Israeli peace movement, many of them prominent leaders in MERETZ and Peace Now, published an appeal to the Palestinian leadership on January 2, 2001. These leaders of the Zionist left considered it urgent to stress that “we shall never be able to agree to the return of the refugees to within the borders of Israel, for the meaning of such a return would be the elimination of the state of Israel.” Furthermore, they declared in the same vein that “the massive return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.” (Ha’aretz, January 2, 2001)

The issue of the Palestinian refugee’s right to return on the basis of UN Resolution 194 and the intense current political debate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the subject are seen by many in the peace movement as the stumbling block to the successful conclusion of the current negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The truth is that the intensity of the current diplomatic struggle around the refugee issue and the resulting polarization are the result and not the cause of the demise of the U.S. sponsored peace process. We shall see how this stalemate was engineered.

No Grounds for Despair, No Grounds for Fear

I hope that many of my friends who have recently expressed deep fears and anxiety regarding the refugee issue will be able to understand, in the not too distant future, that the Palestinian authority and any self respecting Palestinian body would have to defend the letter and the spirit of Resolution 194 in the circumstances that developed in the wake of Camp David 2000 and Intifada II. The assumption that the defense of UN Resolution 194 by the Palestinian Authority means that the Palestinians are unwilling to make peace with Israel unless Israel relinquishes it policy and ability to maintain the Jewish nature of the country is fallacious for the following reasons.

Even on the declarative level, responsible Palestinian leaders have always made the distinction between the recognition of the rights of the refugees and the specific mechanisms involved in the implementation of this right. Implementation, as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, would involve a lengthy process based on a mix of international political and financial commitments, repatriation, resettlement, compensation and various checks and balances reflecting Israeli sovereignty. There is no reason to believe that any other process is envisaged by the Palestinian Authority.. This being the case, the morbid fear of many Israeli doves that recognition of UN 194 means that Israel would be inundated and swamped by millions of Palestinian refugees – turning Israel into an additional Arab state - has no basis in reality. The fear is unfounded and its cultivation can only help the enemies of peace to maintain the occupation. There is a neurotic component in this fear that reminds one of the racist anxieties in the West over the impending deluge of the ‘yellow hordes.’ In case you haven’t figured out the scenario of this horror film, here it is: tens of thousands of refugees return to Israel, living in peace with its neighbors. The repatriated refugees are successfully absorbed economically and politically. Then, hundreds of thousands return to Israel and are likewise absorbed in Israel. The former refugees are living in peace with their Israel neighbors, just as Israel is living in peace with the Arab world. And then, all of a sudden (!), the (former) refugees and all the Arab countries, headed by the Palestinian state suddenly declare, gotcha – we fooled you, and unless Israel becomes an Arab state (or a colony of Palestine) and a member of the Arab League, we will declare war and destroy you! In short, the declaration by the leaders of the Zionist left is founded on fear, neurosis, panic - the refugees are coming!!

The Current Impasse

Aside from the rights and the wrongs of the conflict that should never be forgotten, public figures should equip themselves with some understanding of the diplomatic process. In cool and calm scenes that are based on trust and allow for some progress, negotiations work around and through differences of principle in an attempt to create solutions that involve serious amelioration for all concerned. In times of diplomatic crises (when the chances for an agreement narrow) both sides become more ‘principled’ and explain to their constituencies the bad faith of the other side. Since there is, for the time being, no real progress towards peace, Barak seeks to neutralize criticism from the peace movement by pretending that a settlement hinges on unconditional and unqualified Israeli acceptance of UN Resolution 194.

Barak finds it easy to manipulate Israeli public opinion because many in the peace movement hold the belief that the there were informal understandings with the Palestinian leadership that it would be helpful in ‘going easy’ on the refugee issue when and if all other issues had been settled satisfactorily. Even if this view has some foundation in contacts between key Palestinian leaders and sections of the Israeli peace movement, it is clear that these understandings do not apply, and could not apply to the circumstances pertaining to the present stage in negotiations with the Palestinians.

After Barak declared in the wake of the failure to reach an agreement at Camp David that Israeli has no partner for peace, after the brutal, bloody and unsuccessful attempts to suppress the Intifada, after Barak has reaffirmed again and again that he would never give in on sovereignty over the Temple Mount, he proceeded to openly challenge the Palestinians to give in on UN 194 in order to advance agreement on all the other issues. Palestinian refusal of this kind of deal was inevitable. This is so clear as to almost make the following comments superfluous. But, just in case it is necessary, let us explain why.

Firstly, the assumption by Barak’s supporters that all the other major issues were already settled is simply without foundation. At this point there is no dearth of reliable information to the effect that there are still tremendous difficulties regarding the division of Jerusalem, the allocation of territory to the Palestinian state and the removal of settlements. It is painful to see how many in the peace camp insist on playing into the hands of every Barak twist and turn. The latest kite sent up in the air by Barak is this big exchange: we give you the Temple Mount and you give us 194. Is there anyone with a minimum of political savvy in the Israel who believes that the Palestinian Authority could start working out the details of a deal on such principles. Isn’t it quite clear to any informed observer (and this should include some highly intelligent left-Zionists) that this gambit is a non-starter and so crude in its intent and its timing that it must be seen inevitably as a provocation against any serious negotiations.

Secondly, even if there indeed existed this ‘informal understanding’ that the Palestinians would not block an agreement because of the refugee issue, this understanding might have been plausible in the context of a new set of interim accords. It was and still is totally implausible and totally inconceivable that the Palestinians would ignore the refugee issue within the framework of a final status agreement putting ‘an end to the conflict’. There was no basis whatsoever for anyone in the Israeli peace camp to believe, on the basis of this informal understanding, that the Palestinian Authority would forfeit the rights of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194 within the framework of an interim agreement and in order to reach such an agreement. This distinction between a major step forward wherein the Palestinians could agree to less than full and complete acceptance by Israel of 194 and a final agreement, under which Palestinians forfeit all further claims, including the human, civil, and political rights of 3-4 million refugees is clear to every Palestinian. One would hope that this distinction should be clear to leaders of the Zionist left.

Thirdly, in the hard world of realpolitik there is still another consideration. Supposing you were a serious Palestinian leader and willing, for fear that you could do no better, to ‘forget’ about the refugees and sign their rights away for a decent deal on borders and Jerusalem, are you certain that you have a partner? Can anyone on the Zionist left guarantee that Barak is willing to follow through on such an agreement (witness his ability to declare again and again that he will never surrender Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians). Would you suggest to the Palestinian leadership that it renounce its obligation to the refugees for a mere chance that Barak might honor a commitment? Moreover, here in the real world, we hear that Mr. Barak is a rather temporary figure on the Israeli scene, without a parliamentary majority, without a cabinet, without advisors, without a party and without even a long chance of being prime minister in less than a month.

Finally, the leaders of the Zionist left seemed to have lost their international bearings. Usually sensitive to the positions of the international community and especially the United States, the Zionist left finds itself at odds with almost every segment of that community which refuses to accept its version to the effect that implementation of 194 means the elimination of Israel. Why is it clear to all people and political forces that want peace that Palestinian insistence on UN 194 is, to say the least, legitimate? Why do so many genuine friends of Israel in the international community refuse to accept the argument that one must choose between the existence of Israel and a fair solution for the refugees?Trailing Behind Events

The Zionist left has often played important roles in pushing for concrete steps for Israeli-Arab peace. It has also been, in different circumstances, a brake on the political and the ideological development of the peace camp. All too often it has tailed after the more consistent, internationalist component of the Israel peace movement. After the 1967 War, the Zionist left insisted on its orientation on Jordan and the “good king” as the partner for peace, long after it had become clear that it was the PLO, which represented the Palestinian people. The Zionist left insisted that the PLO was a ‘terrorist organization’ long after important Israeli and international groups had demonstrated PLO willingness to negotiate with Israel. The Zionist peace camp was until very recently quite unclear regarding the need to base any settlement on the pre-June 1967 borders. Just recently, (and after Barak) it began supporting Palestinian rights and sovereignty in Jerusalem. Lastly, it echoed Clinton and Barak in claiming that Arafat had done irrevocable harm to the chances for peace by not buying Barak’s ‘far-reaching concessions’ at Camp David. To its credit, it should be noted that the Zionist left calmed down and developed a deeper understanding of the issues within several months, rejecting Barak’s argument that Israel has no partner for peace.Unfortunately, many other instances of ‘delayed reactions’ can be cited. On the other hand, it is also quite important to point out that invariably there are many sincere activists associated with the Zionist left (usually those quite distant from the power centers of the establishment) who are free of the leadership’s inhibitions and open to a balanced, internationalist approach.

The reason for this inherently sluggish thought process stems from the basically empirical approach of the Zionist left. The Zionist left is a progressive force because it understands the value of peace and that Israel is strong enough to make important concessions for peace. But these concessions are seen in a purely instrumental fashion. The Zionist left, obsessed with Jewish suffering and Jewish homelessness and Jewish traumas, has neither the inclination nor the theoretical tools to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an objective, non partisan manner. For the Zionist left, any peace is a just peace if it assures functional stability. For humanists and democrats, peace is important in and of itself, but it can bear genuine fruit only to the degree that it is just, i.e., that it meets elementary standards of universal justice. A peace that would turn its back on the fate of three to four million refugees, and refuse to transform their situation, would hardly meet such standards.