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Highlighting: “The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace,” by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf. Points Books. 2020. ISBN-13: 9781250252760.

“How could anything new possibly be said about the Arab-Israeli conflict,” ask Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, since they acknowledge it would appear that “every detail of the conflict has already been thoroughly examined and debated.” Still, in their intellectual, political and historical quest, they found there is a considerable amount that still needs to be said.

Their goal is to challenge the conventional approach of the role of diplomats and mediators in responding to protracted conflicts. Instead of employing shuttle diplomacy where “reluctant sides” are coerced into making concessions, diplomats must correctly assess the root causes of the dispute and work assiduously to eliminate the true impediments preventing a peaceful resolution. They assert this explains why this Mideast conflict remains an intractable one.

Their political left background might be a reason to forgo reading their work, yet it is precisely because of their leftist views that this is a compelling read. Einat Wilf, who has a doctorate in political science from Oxford University, served as a member of the Knesset for the Independence and the Labor Party, where she “advised and worked closely” with Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, the architects of the Oslo Accords. Adi Schwartz worked as a journalist for a decade for “Haaretz,” a prominent leftist newspaper in Israel.

 

Advocates for the Two-State Solution

Both were “very strong proponents” of the two-state solution and championed every effort to advance a peace agreement based on this formula. Like many Israelis, they grew up trusting that once the Arabs had their own state in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, with their capital in the eastern part of Jerusalem, peace would prevail.

Yasser Arafat’s refusal to reach an agreement with the Israelis in 2000 and 2008, and the Second Intifada, when the Arabs unleashed barbaric attacks to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible on the Israeli civilian population, caused them to question some of their fundamental assumptions about the conflict.

 

Arab Refugees Demand for The “Right of Return”

In their quest to understand why there hasn’t been any resolution to the war, they found the answer “hiding in plain sight for decades.” They assert that one of the core issues in the conflict “almost totally absent from the consciousness” of Israelis and those seeking a peaceful solution is the Arab demand for the Arab refugees’ “right of return.” They consider this to be the primary issue preventing an end to the dispute since the Arabs view themselves as “refugees from Palestine,” which reflects their “relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with the Jews.”

Among the pivotal questions the authors claim that have been overlooked are: Why are there still Arab “refugees” from a war that ended 70 years ago? Why do the Palestinians insist that each and every Palestinian refugee, for generations into perpetuity, has an individual and in fact “sacred” right to return to the sovereign state of Israel, despite there being no actual legal basis for it? Who and what prevented the Palestinian refugees from being rehabilitated as the Jewish refugees in 1948 were? Was it a lack of interest or money, or were there other, ideological, motives? Is the “right of return” a real demand or just a bargaining chip, which can be bargained away when other demands are met? What does a “right of return” mean in the context of a comprehensive peace accord? And if this demand is real, can we move forward, and if so, how?”

 

UNWRA

The authors blame the West for providing financial aid to the UN, which then supports UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, with an “estimated one and a half billion dollars per year,” according to investigative journalist David Bedein. They explain how until May 1950, when UNRWA became operational, relief agencies provided aid to anyone considered to be in need of assistance. Over time, UNRWA formulated a definition for “registered Palestine refugees,” even when they were not legitimate refugees in the standard legal sense of the term. According to UNRWA, an Arab has to have been a resident of Palestine for just two years before being considered a refugee.

Israel’s release of the names of UNWRA employees accused of participating in the October 7 terrorist attacks and kidnappings in southern Israel, including their photos and alleged roles with Hamas, further demonstrates the nefarious role the organization plays in Gaza in perpetuating the hatred of Israel and ensuring the refugees continue to be a contentious issue.

In another forum, A.B. Yehoshua, an Israeli novelist and peace activist, placed the “refugee” question in perspective: Jews and Palestinian Arabs, he said, who fled or were expelled, should not be called refugees, but displaced persons. A refugee flees or has been expelled from his country; a displaced person flees or is expelled from his home but remains within the boundaries of his homeland. The Jews who fled or were expelled by Arabs into Israeli territory were never refugees but only displaced persons who were provided with new homes in Israel.

Palestinian Arabs were referred to as refugees even though most remained in Palestine and lived no more than 20 to 40 km from their homes. The Arabs of Ashdod and Ashkelon relocated to Gaza, only 20 km from their homes. The Arabs from Lod and Ramle moved to the Ramallah area, about 30 or 40 km from these towns. Some Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled, went to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where, except for Jordan, they were refused citizenship and remain refugees.

 

A Final Note

The Arab demand for the “right of return” and UNWRA’s involvement in perpetuating the refugee crisis have been the subject of inquiry by many, including David Bedein, historian Daniel Pipes, and Professor Gerald Steinberg, who have shown how the West enables the problem to persist.

The war with Israel is not only about Arab refugees. Seizing Arab ground cannot be tolerated, notes Bernard Lewis, for they consider it sacred Arab land. He explains that once a territory has become part of Islam‘s domain, it can never be relinquished or surrendered to anyone. Article Thirteen of the Hamas Covenant explains why the war against Israel is a holy war to regain control of the land of Israel: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.”

The contribution by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf to our understanding of the Arab refugee “right of return,” cannot be underestimated. Their position on the left adds credibility to the revelations found in this significant and worthwhile study.


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI).

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