by Michael Lame, posted on April 28, 2011
At the end of last week’s article, which argued that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is not in the offing, I suggested that we look instead at addressing specific, discrete issues. I offer two this week: refugees and settlements.
The concerns of Palestinian refugees and their descendants do not receive nearly as much media attention as they deserve and certainly not as much as do other key conflict issues – borders, settlements, security, and Jerusalem. Perhaps that is because these other matters are of great concern to Israel while the fate of Palestinian refugees is not. Or perhaps it is because the growth of the settler population is so physically evident, as settlements and outposts spread out horizontally across the West Bank’s landscape and as Jewish families replace Muslim families in east Jerusalem neighborhoods. In contrast, the growth in Palestinian refugee numbers, both inside and outside Palestine, results in higher population densities within existing communities but not in the more visible activity of building entirely new suburbs and towns.
Whether refugees are in the news or not, their problems are not being addressed and their problems will not go away. What is needed is a project to finally end the exile of Palestinian refugees, either by allowing them to return to their old homes or by finding them new ones. Even a peace agreement between the PA/PLO and the government of Israel will not achieve this goal, for two reasons.
First, no Israeli government led by Likud, Kadima, Labor, or any other mainstream political party will agree to allow the immigration into Israel of more than a tiny fraction of the total number of refugees and their descendants, currently estimated at several million.
Second, ignoring for a moment the Gaza-West Bank divide, the PA claims to represent only those Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, not those living in ’67 Israel or outside of Palestine. The PA does not represent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world. That is the job of the moribund PLO. Remember the mantra from the ‘80s: “The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”? Today, the PLO is an empty shell. Its governing bodies don’t govern. Its executive committee doesn’t meet.
Is there a way to help end the statelessness, alleviate the suffering, and increase the opportunities available to Palestinian refugees without prejudicing their claims to repatriation, reparations, and compensation? I believe there is. Whether Palestinians will welcome it is another matter. Regardless of what is offered, some Palestinians will choose to remain in refugee camps until a final resolution of the conflict or until they can return to their pre-1948 homes. But others might be willing to relocate and obtain citizenship in another country, especially if their status as Palestinian refugees is not thereby adversely affected.
An international guarantee – preferably UN-sponsored, US-backed, and signed onto by the Arab League members and Israel – could be provided to Palestinians stating that whatever rights they have as refugees will not be lost by virtue of their accepting resettlement and permanent residence status or citizenship in another country.
For some Palestinians, this suggestion is anathema. It smacks of an Israeli or international Jewish conspiracy to have the Palestinian refugee camps disappear. With the camps gone, the refugees themselves may be forgotten or ignored. Their decades of suffering will have been for naught and their dreams of returning home will be snuffed out. That is not the purpose or the intended result of this proposal, though it will probably be so interpreted by some.
Over the last sixty years, several plans for resettlement have been developed, all of which aroused intense opposition from Arab countries and from Palestinians. But the myth of Palestinian refugee solidarity was exploded long ago. Watch the powerful documentary “Chronicles of a Refugee” for a glimpse of the diversity of opinion among Palestinian refugees today regarding representation, loyalty to the camps, the question of resettlement, and the right of return.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN agency responsible for all the world’s refugee populations with the sole exception of the Palestinians, has a resettlement program. In contrast, UNRWA offers no such resettlement option. The international community could choose to fund a voluntary resettlement program for interested Palestinian refugees, managed either through UNRWA or a new agency established for that purpose.
If the U.S. is willing to spearhead this effort by opening wide its own doors to a significant number of Palestinians, to encourage other countries to do likewise, to reassure Palestinians and the world that no rights are being waived by Palestinians who take advantage of this program, and to take the inevitable heat that will accompany its leadership, then something truly useful can be done for at least a portion of future generations of Palestinians.
With U.S. backing, the PA insisted that Israel stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a prerequisite to a renewal of negotiations. That strategy failed miserably during the last two years. A more targeted approach might succeed, however.
The Israeli Supreme Court has designated many Israeli outposts as illegal and has called on the Israeli government to dismantle them. On more than one occasion, the government has ordered the outposts’ removal but has failed to follow through. The few outposts that have been dismantled have quickly been rebuilt by determined settlers. Others have been re-designated as having been built on state land rather than private land so that they can remain.
On April 21, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council that:
Like every U.S. administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. We have long urged both parties to avoid actions, including in Jerusalem, that could undermine trust or prejudge negotiations. The fate of existing settlements must be dealt with by the parties, along with the other permanent-status issues.
Urging “both parties to avoid action…that could undermine trust or prejudge negotiations” is a weak and insufficient policy.
While “the fate of existing settlements” may only be dealt with in the future, the plans for constructing additional settlements need to be addressed in the present. It is just possible that focused, persistent, active opposition by the United States government to the establishment of any new West Bank settlements and to the continued presence of any unauthorized outposts, whether built on private Palestinian land or on state land, could result in Israel dismantling the illegal outposts and restricting its West Bank construction efforts to already-existing settlements. Such a focused approach represents far less than what Palestinians and their supporters want from the U.S. government but, if it succeeds, it could finally put a limit to Israeli settlement expansion.
I have never understood why the PA has been so inept in communicating to Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world about the damage done to prospects for peace by the ongoing establishment of new settlements. Perhaps it’s because of Palestinian reliance on the argument that the settlements are unlawful according to the prevailing interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. That’s not a potent argument to make to Israelis, most of whom consider the United Nations in particular and the international community in general to be hostile to Israel’s legitimate interests and concerns. Nor does the international legal argument resonate with the average American, who much prefers the U.S. constitution to European or UN-mandated legal norms.
Most Israelis living along the country’s coast never visit Jews who reside on the other side of the green line nor do they strongly identify with them. Since the Palestinians seem incapable of making a convincing argument to this majority of Israelis as to why they should oppose building new settlements, perhaps the Americans can make the case. I believe that Israelis will respond positively to moral arguments, provided that they are not delivered in a scolding manner or from a position of moral superiority. A stern admonition that adopts the tone of “How could you, the children of Holocaust survivors, so mistreat the Palestinians?” won’t fly. Instead it will likely provoke an angry response of “Who are you to lecture us?” On the other hand, Israelis will respond well to cogent arguments framed to appeal to their national interests and particularly their security interests. International legal arguments, however, will not persuade the Israeli public.
Unfortunately, President Obama has waited too long to reach out to the people of Israel. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I believe that he has forever lost the opportunity to be viewed by Israelis as Israel’s trusted friend, regardless of whether Palestinians and other Arabs view him as pro-Israeli. But it still may be possible for someone else in the Obama administration to represent him publicly to the Israeli people and then privately in tough talks with Israeli leaders. Of everyone on the president’s team, Secretary of State Clinton is the one best able to have an adult conversation with the Israeli public by appealing to them directly, over the heads of Netanyahu, Barak, Livni and the rest of the current crop of mediocre politicians. Even better, if pressed into service for this specific task, Bill Clinton would do an exceptional job of speaking to the Israelis in a language they would be receptive to.
The proposal for a complete building moratorium was a bridge too far, but the settlements and the occupation regime are issues of too great importance to all the parties for the U.S. to back off from dealing with them altogether. Only the United States is in a position to challenge Israel, as a friend and ally, regarding a host of civil and military practices in the West Bank that embitter – to use a Passover term – the lives of Palestinians on a daily basis and exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
Specifically, the United States could press Israel to
- prohibit and prevent the establishment of new settlements and outposts in the West Bank;
- re-think and rewrite the zoning system for land usage in the West Bank;
- set up a fair, rational, and transparent system for the issuance of building permits to Palestinians;
- stop confiscating privately-held Palestinian land;
- stop appropriating state-land for settlement purposes;
- stop evicting Palestinians from their homes.
The list could certainly be longer, but at least it’s a start. The point is for the U.S. to insist that Israel begin to apply the brakes to further demographic change in areas beyond its already-existing settlements.
In order to succeed in shifting America’s and Israel’s stance on building new settlements, the Obama administration will have to seriously and extensively engage with Congress and with the organized American Jewish community far more than it already has. Of course, this is far easier said than done.
Most Israelis don’t know and don’t want to know how the government, the army, and the settlers are treating Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nor does the current Israeli government (or past governments) particularly want them to know. So we shouldn’t expect any Israeli prime minister to level with Israeli citizens about the planned policies and the ad hoc actions imposed on the territories regarding treatment of Israelis versus treatment of Palestinians. No Israeli government has ever told its people what the long-term economic and diplomatic costs are for the on-going settlement project.
If the majority of Israelis know little of what’s going on only a few miles from where they live, most Americans – including most American Jews – know even less about the mechanisms and consequences of Israeli occupation. The truism that the media is better at covering events than processes is highly relevant to the West Bank. The ugly story of a horrific Palestinian terrorist attack on a sleeping Jewish family in an Israeli settlement is broadcast around the world, but the daily denial of building permits or the fencing off of a few dunam are not the stuff of headline news. They do, however, change people’s lives.
As President Obama is fond of saying with regards to any major change that needs to be made: “It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight.” The policy changes required of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians are difficult ones and of unequal size in this most asymmetrical of conflicts, but each of the players is capable of initiating change to help alleviate suffering and, ultimately, to resolve the conflict.
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