New Approaches to the ‘Right of Return’

“We understand the Palestinian right of return is the basis of Palestinian nationality, like our belief in our right to the land of Israel. They can’t give that up. This concession is interpreted by many Palestinians as an acceptance of the historical injustice that Israel imposed on them.  That’s why we urge recognition of it.”

Those aren’t the sentiments of a radical Israeli left-winger. They were expressed by a diehard Zionist who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, Israel Piekarsch, the CEO and co-founder of an Israeli group called Anahnu (“We”). It is devoted to “forging a new consensus” — healing the rifts in Israel between the left and right, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs.

Piekarsch and Anahnu are part of a diverse group of Israeli activists and thinkers who are wrestling with a reality that too many want to wish away: few Palestinians are willing to relinquish the belief that their refugees have the right to return to the land from which their families fled or were expelled. It’s a key part of their national narrative.

Right now—a dark moment when Israel’s annexationists have considerable power—discussing this issue might seem to be little more than a speculative academic exercise.  But we can’t assume this horrid government will remain forever, or that the ongoing occupation will continue to be a non-issue in Israeli elections.  While pro-Israel progressives should fight against new plans to expand settlements and undermine Israel’s democracy, we are also in dire need of hope that a resolution of this conflict is possible in the future.  That means finding creative, concrete solutions to issues that include the right of return (ROR).

Conflicting Narratives

The ROR is “characterised as both a human right and a sacred right among Palestinian refugees,” explains Solbhi Albadawi of Macquarie University. In a survey he helped to conduct of Palestinians in refugee camps, “72% indicated that it was not possible to accept a peace agreement that did not include the provision for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homeland.”

On the other hand, in the core Israeli narrative, the Palestinian ROR means the end of a Jewish majority, the death of the Jewish state. An array of objections are routinely raised by Israel’s supporters, many of them legalistic arguments about why certain UN resolutions and agreements between Israel and its neighbors do not support the ROR. You can find some here.

One key argument is based on the fact that the United Nations’ definition of Palestinian refugees includes the descendants of those who lost their homes “as a result of the 1948 conflict.”  More were displaced during the war in 1967 and the UN now estimates the total number of refugees as 5.9 million. The ADL notes that “Israel…argues that a `return’ is not viable for such a small state, given that the influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel would pose a threat to its national security and upset the country’s demographic makeup.”

I used to accept this conventional pro-Israel wisdom. Now, I’m having second thoughts, grappling with new ideas about the ROR developed by Israelis and Palestinians who understand that this issue must be addressed.

In official negotiations since the start of the Oslo peace process, the most any Israeli government offered the refugees was the right of return to a Palestinian state, with a limited trickle allowed back into Israel proper for family unifications or other humanitarian reasons.  While accounts vary on the extent to which the ROR was a major obstacle to an agreement when compared to other issues, dealing with it was clearly a significant challenge.

Yet proponents of alternatives to the conventional two state solution don’t believe the ROR poses an intractable problem and are suggesting creative new approaches.

Most—although not all—of these approaches call for a confederation, in which the territory of the original British Mandate “from the River to Sea” will be considered a mutual homeland shared by two peoples. In this scenario, two states will be established roughly along the pre-1967 lines, probably with land swaps. Then, an agreed-upon number of Palestinians—including refugees—would live in Israel as permanent residents who retain Palestinian citizenship.

At the same time, in a kind of aspirational trade-off, Israeli citizens who now live in the West Bank could remain there as permanent residents of Palestine, thereby eliminating the need to evacuate Jewish settlers who want to stay where they are.  

Other goals include open or permeable borders, more freedom of movement and economic cooperation roughly analogous to what exists in the EU, as well as changing the status of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. All of these are interrelated and deserve attention, but I will focus on the thorny issue of Palestinian refugees.

Proposals For Addressing the Refugee Issue

Here is an excerpt from the proposal for the Palestinian refugee issue by A Land for All (ALFA), a group of Israelis and Palestinians who are the most well-known confederation proponents:

Citizens of the Palestinian state, including former refugees, would be eligible for residency status in Israel and have all the rights conferred by such status, including the right to vote for local authorities.

To avoid inundation, as a first step, agreement would be reached on a significant number of Palestinian refugees who would be eligible for residency in the State of Israel…Such a model would allow, on the one hand, Palestinians to return to the historical homeland from which they were exiled or expelled, and, on the other, enable Jewish Israelis to maintain the character of the State of Israel. Arrangements would be put in place for the restoration of refugee property lost or expropriated, or compensation for it, without creating new injustices.

The rebuilding of Palestinian communities destroyed after 1948 will be considered, as will remedies for Palestinians internally displaced within Israel. Israel and Palestine will work together to provide adequate compensation to Jews who felt forced to leave Arab countries or were expelled from them as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and had to leave their homes and other property behind.

Their ultimate goal is very audacious: “The vision is that at the end of the process, any Palestinian, including former refugees, will be able to live anywhere in the shared homeland, within Israel or within the Palestinian state.” Keep in mind that Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state was no less audacious in the late 19th century. Breakthrough thinking was needed. It’s needed today.

However, as bold as ALFA’s ideas about the refugees might seem, that doesn’t mean they will fulfill all Palestinian aspirations. “We must understand that for Palestinians, this is not a full return or a full realization of their right of return – but we cannot satisfy one hundred percent of everyone’s desires,” according to ALFA. “Freedom of movement and residence will be universal and will apply to all refugees, without any quotas or favors, so that they can restore their relations with their homeland and relatives who stayed here.”

A similar plan for Palestinian refugees is part of the Holy Land Confederation (HLC), a proposal developed by experts led by Palestinian lawyer Hilda Husseini and the indefatigable Yossi Beilin. It calls for a “reciprocal” or equal number of Israelis and Palestinians to be permanent residents of each others’ states.

A More Gradual Approach

For its part, Anahnu calls for the creation of what Piekarsch calls an “autonomous community” of Palestinian citizens—including refugees–residing in Israel, along with an autonomous community of Israeli citizens within the new Palestinian state.Compared to other proposals, Anahnu advocates a much more gradual absorption of refugees in order to ensure that Israel retains a Jewish majority.  Referring to the entire process, including the transition required for current West Bank settlers to live safely in a Palestinian state,  Piekarsch said “it must be done slowly, monitored carefully” over a 50-year period. In this plan:

Israel will recognize the Palestinian Right of Return, and every refugee will be allowed to choose whether to accept Israel’s law and authority and wait his/her turn to become an Israeli citizen, move to the Palestinian state, or receive compensation. However, the naturalization of the Palestinian refugees in Israel will be limited, in order to maintain a solid Jewish majority of 70% of all Israeli citizens, and they will be properly and gradually absorbed by establishing new Palestinian settlements or being integrated into existing ones.

However, Piekarsch adamantly insisted to me that Anahnu is not in favor of confederation for a number of reasons. One of them is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “asymmetric… Confederation by definition requires trust between two players already at the starting point of the process. Asymmetric conflicts are characterized by a distinct and unchangeable lack of trust.” (ALFA tries to address this point on its web site, responding to the assertion that “Your solution is based on trust between the two people. There is no trust here. Only hate.”)

Right now, confederation advocates and Anahnu have no political power. But they are slowly getting more grassroots support. As noted in Haaretz, activists in Anahnu, which also has an ambitious agenda for reformulating domestic governance in Israel, have “crisscrossed the country to hold parlor meetings, tours and lectures with the aim of honing their ideas before making an appeal to the general public.”

I hope their ideas get more political traction. Assuming, as I do, that the conventional two-state solution is now dead, Israelis will soon need to choose between a permanent occupation that denies Palestinians the right to vote and a moral alternative, a two states 2.0.  Either way, they will need to contend with the Palestinian yearning for the ROR. As ALFA states on its web site:

The non-realization of the right of return will serve as a perpetual weapon at the hands of the enemies of reconciliation—Hamas and others. Only a just and serious solution with the right of return would bring about a stable solution. Ignoring the right of return is not an option.