Speaking on Israeli Channel 2 Television last week, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, said, in reference to the village now in Israel proper where he was born: “I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there.” If with these words Abbas hoped to appease the Israeli public and assure them that the Palestinians could waive the right of return, he was missing the point.
Those who support Israel in its sweeping refusal of the Palestinian right of return argue that acceding to this right would practically mean the destruction of that country as a Jewish state. In other words, what is deterring them from agreeing to negotiate over this right with the Palestinians is the fear of having their country swamped by more Palestinians. It is my belief that the real reason for this passionately held refusal lies elsewhere.
It was agreed by both Israel and the PLO in the Oslo Accords of 1993 that the issue of Palestinian refugees would be deferred for the final status negotiations. Israel then has not ruled out the possibility of negotiating the rights of Palestinian refugees nor did it make the renunciation of their right of return a condition precedent for executing the Accords.
It should not be difficult to appreciate that negotiations cannot mean that any side dictates to the other nor that it can mean that one side should decide unilaterally what rights the other side should renounce before the negotiations have even begun. Nor is it difficult to understand that when the time finally arrives for the this issue to be negotiated, there is little possibility that Israel could be compelled to allow the return of the refugees if it should refuse to do so. Yet how often do Israelis insist that Palestinians claiming to be genuinely supporting peace with their country are somehow required to renounce the right of return as a gesture of goodwill?
I don’t believe that the reason for this is related to any foreseeable outcome. Rather, it lies in a profound unwillingness to accept the very existence of the Palestinians as a people and their forced expulsion from their homes during the Nakba. Willingness to accept that international law recognizes a Palestinian right of return implies that there was once a nation living in the territory where Israel was established. For Israel to admit this would require such a profound adjustment of much of the historical distortions this country has propagated.
If this were not so, and the real reason for the refusal to allow the right of return to be negotiated is, as is commonly claimed, the demographic fear, let me pose this challenge: let us assume Palestinians renounce ab initio their right of return and they agree instead to request from of Israel an apology for the hardship and misery the establishment of the country caused them over the past six and a half years. Would Israel be willing to agree to this simple gesture?