In the escalating crisis between the US and Israel, the issues of borders has gotten the most attention. By adopting the 1967 borders with territorial swaps as the starting point for negotiations, US President Barack Obama has explicitly shifted US policy. Previous presidents have recognized that the 1967 borders were untenable for Israel and that adjustments would be made, especially the incorporation of settlement blocs.
Now, by specifying both the starting point for border adjustments and the precise size of Israel that will result from negotiations, Obama has adopted part of the Palestinian position.
But while the borders issue has rightly outraged most Israeli commentators, in his public statement to the press after his meeting with Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbed a grenade directly at the American role in the Middle East “peace process.” He made it clear that Palestinian “refugees” will never exercise their mythical “right of return” to previous places of residence in Israel, but added, “I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen.”
This was a challenge issued directly to President Obama who in his own remarks explicitly stated that the refugee issue would come, along with Jerusalem, at the end of the negotiations. Instead, Netanyahu demanded that Obama tell Palestinians that one of their most cherished myths will never come to pass. The statement must have struck fear into the hearts of Palestinian leaders but appears to have passed over the heads of Obama and his Middle Eastern advisors, as well as most pundits. But now that Netanyahu has put the issue front and center, in Obama’s presence, sooner or later someone will ask him or his administration about Palestinian ‘refugees.” What will he tell them?
If Israelis are enraged about the issues of borders on purely pragmatic terms, namely the indefensibility of the 1949 armistice lines that left Israel a mere nine miles wide, the “right of return” is part of the central ethos of Palestinian society. A week does not go by when a Palestinian leader, from Fatah or Hamas, does not loudly promise Palestinians that they will be able to undo 63 years of history and return to what is now Israel.
As a specific piece of cultural and political mythology the “right of return” is transmitted at every conceivable level, from leaders on down. On “Nakba Day,” for example, a Palestinian schoolteacher was quoted in an Egyptian newspaper as saying, “In the past, we were relating to the right of return with a sort of abstract determination. But this year, many people feel that invoking the right of return is acquiring a realistic tone. We are no longer talking about chimerical goals, at least as far as we are concerned.”
Return to imaginary pastThe continued repetition of this unprecedented “right” keeps Palestinians at a permanently high state of mobilization against any realistic possibility of peace. Transgressors against this are regularly denounced as traitors, and political success is contingent on stating it ever more loudly. Privately, of course, as the “Palestine Papers” show, Palestinian leaders fully recognize the impossibility of the “right of return” and argued only for symbolic numbers to be admitted to Israel. The very release of these papers, however, was designed to embarrass those leaders who showed realism and to harden public attitudes.
The “right of return” exists at several levels in Palestinian society. At the popular level of personal and cultural fantasy it promises nothing less than a return to an imaginary past, a Palestine without Jews but filled with peace and prosperity, where everyone sat beneath their own lemon tree. That the real past was unlike this, being filled with endemic poverty and disease, among other afflictions, is forgotten or contested, if not utterly irrelevant. In Palestinian culture the past will be the future. At the technocratic level, where numerous studies have been produced with straight faces, it proposes the orderly dissolution of Israeli society and the dispossession of Israeli citizens in an utterly unique exercise of national suicide.
That the “right of return” is cultural and political fantasy is recognized by all Israelis and by not a few Palestinians. But Western policymakers refrain from addressing it and prefer, like President Obama, to relegate it to the final stage of negotiations. The idea is that successful negotiations on issues such as territories and borders, and rising economic prosperity, will gradually acculturate Palestinian society into accepting Israel.
Instead, this deferred approach simply plays into the Palestinian strategy of the phased destruction of Israel. The “right of return” is a core Palestinian weapon and all Israeli concessions are framed as demonstrating precisely this progression toward ultimate national suicide. By putting “final status” issues last instead of first, and downgrading the critical importance of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, rather than a state simply inhabited by Jews, Western policymakers underplay the central role of culture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the absolute Palestinian rejection of Jewish sovereignty.
The task of changing Palestinian culture to accept Israel and peace is made more difficult by Western refusal to address core issues such as refugees forthrightly, by demands for continual concessions from Israel, and by refusing to enforce even its own demands on the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian society, such as ending incitement, ending glorification of terrorism and “resistance,” and financial accountability. Rewarding Palestinian intransigence in this way prolongs it, and feed fantasies of “return.”
Now, Netanyahu has made shattering that Palestinian fantasy world an American responsibility. Whatever clarifications and backpedaling the Obama Administration now does regarding the territorial issue should not get it off the hook from facing the “refugee” issue squarely.
Alex Joffe is a New York based writer on history and international affairs. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net.
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