Each time we Israelis hear the words "the 1948 refugee problem," our stomachs flinch out of anxiety and objection. In our parts, the refugee issue has turned into a synonym for the right of return, and the right of return spells Israel's demise.
Perhaps it's about time we put our thoughts in order, and learn to make the distinction between the refugee problem and what is termed the right of return. The refugee problem can and must be resolved, but not by returning refugees to Israeli territory within its peaceful borders. The call to allow refugees to return to Israeli territory must be rejected because if it is realized, there will be two Palestinian states here and not even one for the Jewish people.
However, the problem of the 1948 refugees must be resolved. Moreover, resolving the refugee problem is a vital interest for the State of Israel because as long as this problem remains unresolved – as long as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees are rotting in inhumane refugee camps – we shall have no rest.
Who is responsible for the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees?
According to the Israeli version, Arab leaders are to blame for launching the War of Independence, and the refugees themselves are to blame for fleeing their homes in fear. According to the Arab version, Israel is guilty of forcefully and cruelly expelling them.
There is some truth in both versions: The War of Independence was a total war, a village against a village, a neighborhood against a neighborhood, a house against a house. Populations are uprooted in such wars. Some 12 Jewish communities, including the Old City of Jerusalem, were taken over by the Arabs during the War of Independence. The Jewish populations in these settlements were wiped out or forcefully deported by the Arabs.
On the other hand, hundreds of Arab communities with hundreds of thousands of citizens were uprooted in 1948, some fled, and others were expelled by the Israeli army.
The time has come to openly admit that we are partly responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees; not exclusive responsibility or exclusive guilt, but our hands are not entirely clean. The State of Israel is mature and strong enough to admit its partial guilt and to also accept the inevitable conclusions: We would do well to take upon ourselves part of the effort to settle these refugees outside of Israel's future peace borders, in the framework of future peace agreements.
Israel's actual admission to part of the responsibility for the Palestinian refugees' plight, the actual preparedness to bear part of the solution's burden – is likely to send an emotional shockwave through the Palestinian side. It will serve as an emotional breakthrough of sorts that will significantly facilitate the continuation of talks - because the tragedy of the 1948 refugees is an open and bleeding wound in the flesh of the Palestinian people.
On the Israeli side there is a fixed tendency to increasingly reject the "core issues" of the conflict: Refugees. Jerusalem. Borders. Settlements. This rejection was perhaps what led to the failure of the Oslo Accords, and it obviously doesn't contribute to current negotiations: Israel's tendency to avoid talking about core issues sparks founded suspicion on the Arab side, which argues that Israel is indeed seeking calm but is not ready for a comprehensive solution.
Perhaps Israel's leadership should initiate a discussion on the Palestinian issue and suggest Israeli participation in resolving the problem such as removing all the refugees from the camps in which they are rotting and providing housing, work and citizenship to any refugee that so desires within future Palestinian borders.
Obviously, comprehensive treatment of the root problem will oblige Israel to admit its partial guilt in the Palestinian Nakba and the responsibility stemming from this guilt. Treating the root problem would also have to touch on the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were uprooted from their homes in Arab countries.
Both from moral and security standpoints Israel should seek a solution to the 1948 refugee issue. It would involve a financial burden that would have to be met by Western states, Israel and the wealthy Arab states.
In such an eventuality, the level of violence would drop, and the desperation that breeds extremism will begin to wane once the occupants of the refugee camps begin hearing that their lives in the gutters are about to end.
From Israel's point of view, even if we sign agreements with all our enemies – as long as the refugee plight is not addressed, we shall have no calm.