Right of Return Isn't Absolute
In his recent article on Open Zion, Yousef Munayyer proposed that critics of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) are "incapable of grappling with a movement that views [the Israel-Palestine conflict] through a humanist perspective of rights."
Yousef argues that Zionism cannot be reconciled with liberal values, and thus Zionism is the problem that must be confronted.
While I agree that the way Zionism has been enacted is contradictory to liberal values, it is not impossible to reconcile Jewish national rights with Palestinian rights.
The problem is in one of the three clauses of the Palestinian civil society call that is the ideological basis for the BDS movement. Those three are: 1) self-determination for Palestinians in the occupied territories, 2) a Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and 3) full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Clearly, those whom Yousef calls "liberal Zionists," and others (I do not consider myself either Zionist or anti-Zionist, for instance) support clauses 1 and 3. It is clause 2 that causes trouble, and it is this point that underlies Yousef's contention that Zionism cannot be reconciled with Palestinian rights.
Palestinian refugees are a major human tragedy. But the open-ended calls for a return of Palestinian refugees to their original towns and homes is a non-starter for any resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As I have argued, international law guarantees people the right to return to their home country, but not necessarily to their original homes.
The Palestinian Right of Return (RoR) is based on three points: a UN General Assembly resolution, which does not have the force of international law, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both of the latter documents guarantee return to one's home country, not to a specific town, much less a house. Thus, return behind the Green Line is not necessarily a requirement under international law—the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem were and are also Palestine.
Yousef implied that the only way to recognize Palestinian rights is to allow each refugee and their descendants to choose whether and where, within all of historic Palestine, to return to. That is an unfair standard. But the right of return to one's home country does exist under international law, and the long-standing refusal of both Israel and the United States to address this fact and the broader reality of the refugee crisis is just as sure an obstacle to resolving this conflict as an absolutist stance on RoR on the Palestinian side is.
There has long been a widespread assumption that this Palestinian claim could be made to go away in the face of an agreed two-state resolution to the conflict. This was always false, but it's a very seductive notion for liberal Israelis, who are willing to withdraw from the West Bank and divide Jerusalem, but believe, with good reason, that a large influx of Palestinian refugees behind the Green Line will bring destabilization and exacerbate, rather than resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That legitimate concern must be balanced with the absolute imperative of resolving a refugee crisis that has existed for 65 years of dispossession and denial of legitimate Palestinian rights.
The refugee issue has been laying in wait for decades, until the opportunity for it to sabotage an agreement made without seriously addressing this issue came along. Now that we are entering an era where we will have to come up with new solutions to this conflict, we must start by taking it on directly.
That resolution will not be easy, and the solution is far from obvious. But it begins with Israel moving away from its absolute refusal to recognize the legitimate claims of refugees and with the Palestinians moving away from their insistence on an absolute right for refugees to return to all parts of what was once Mandatory Palestine. It cannot depend, as Yousef claims, on "challenging Zionism," but on finding ways to reconcile Zionism, which can be expressed in a far more universal manner than Israel has done so far, with Palestinian rights.
Up until now, peace has been pursued by first guaranteeing Israeli security, and then addressing Palestinian rights that are their due simply by virtue of their being human beings. That needs to stop.
Reasonable risks and compromises must be taken by all involved, including addressing Palestinian refugees, not someday, but now. It means getting them out of refugee camps, compensating them for their losses and dispossession (in this, the US, Great Britain, the Arab states and others must share the burden with Israel) and allowing them to return to their home country as pragmatism allows.
That will require creativity and sacrifice, because clearly there will be little or no return behind the Green Line and the West Bank and Gaza have a severely limited capacity. But that approach not only reconciles "liberal values" with Zionism, it also provides a practical way forward, something that has been sorely lacking, before, during and after Oslo.