These days, the Palestinian national movement is descending, before our very eyes, into an internecine struggle over the right to represent the Palestinians—a struggle that is bereft of any political meaning in terms of resolving the conflict with Israel.
The octogenarian leader of this movement is completely losing his touch, spewing gutter anti-Semitism blaming the Jews for the Holocaust (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7452, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: Holocaust, Massacres Of European Jews Due To Their Function In Society As Usurers; Hitler Struck A Deal With The Jews, May 2, 2018) and bringing international condemnation upon himself.
How did we get to this point?
In 1993 in Oslo, after nearly a century of armed struggle, the PLO—then the representative of the Palestinian national movement—endorsed the political process. But the change was only tactical, for it was unaccompanied by an ideological transformation, without which the political process is a framework void of content. What ideological change would have made the political process a genuine road towards peaceful solution? The answer is simple: the renunciation of the “right of return.”
It took 25 years for the truth to emerge, crystal clear: The Palestinians are not ready to give up the “right of return.”
MEMRI’s research showed, from the day of its establishment on Feb. 7, 1998, that the Palestinians are unwilling to forgo the “right of return.” In fact, it showed much more: the Palestinian duplicity and doublespeak (inciting jihad in Arabic while negotiating with Israel), the PLO’s involvement in terror attacks, and Arafat’s unwillingness to move from the role of revolutionary to the role of a peace maker and statesman. But the one most important revelation, more important than anything else, was the PLO’s insistence on the right of return, which doomed the whole process.
In all these years, only one figure in the Palestinian elite agreed to the trade-off: foregoing the “right of return” in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. That figure was Professor Sari Nusseibeh, who formed a joint movement together with an Israeli counterpart. The movement numbered a few thousand Israelis and a handful of Palestinians. Nusseibeh was ostracized in his own camp and eventually left politics.
The Saudi Peace Plan of 2002 could have furnished a basis for a partition-based solution, because in its original version, it did not include the “right of return.” However, after the Arab League amended it and grafted the “right of return” onto it, it became a non-starter (see MEMRI TV Clip No. 6031, Former Lebanese President Émile Lahoud Reveals How The Right Of Return Was Forced Into The Saudi Peace Plan In The 2002 Arab Summit (Archival), Dec. 11, 2014 to May 22, 2017; see also Professor Itamar Rabinovich’s analysis of that summit, The Warped Saudi Initiative, Haaretz.com, April 7, 2002).
During the 25 years since Oslo, the conflict deteriorated further as Israelis of goodwill bought into the Palestinian political process tactic—void of the concrete political requisites for peace. Israel even deluded itself that postponing discussion of the “right of return” would cause the problem to fade away. But the very opposite occurred: the Palestinians interpreted this as tacit acceptance that the “right of return” would eventually be granted, an idea that no Israeli leadership ever entertained.
In recent years, by rejecting the proposals by Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert for an Israeli withdrawal from nearly all the occupied territories, and by failing, in the past year-and-a-half, to even return to the negotiating table, the Palestinians have brought themselves back to square one: to their situation in 1947.
For the Zionist leadership, the test has always been the readiness to accept partition—and it has repeatedly passed this test. For the Palestinian leadership, the test was foregoing the “right of return”—and it has repeatedly failed the test.
True, a large portion of the Israeli public was antagonistic to partition, but those representing the majority of Israel’s population were prepared to accept it. By clinging to the “right of return,” the Palestinians spared Israel the need to go through with this choice, with all its potentially destructive internal repercussions.
The Palestinian insistence on the “right of return” and Israel’s rejection of it—a rejection shared by nearly all parts of the Israeli political spectrum, from right to left—constitutes the real tragedy of the conflict. The overwhelming majority of Western countries do not expect Israel to agree to the “right of return.” The problem of the settlements, which many place in the spotlight, is a problem that could be resolved in a variety of ways, but the insistence on the “right of return” dooms the two-state solution from the outset.
The Zionist path to statehood was characterized by readiness for compromise and pragmatism. This was not always the case in Jewish history. In the years 67-135 C.E., the Jews believed they could make mincemeat of the Roman legionnaires and send them back to Rome—like Hamas today believes it can send the Jews back from whence they came.
But instead, it was the Jews who were packed off to face two millennia of exile and annihilation. This catastrophic outcome was etched deeply into the psyche of most Jews, and induced most of the Zionist leadership to accept nearly any partition out of a “refusal to refuse” mentality. At the time when the British Royal Navy was turning away Jewish refugees and sending them back to die in Europe, David Ben-Gurion exhorted the Hebrew youth to enlist in the British army that was perpetrating this atrocity.
Where is the Palestinian national movement headed today?
Lacking the components vital for a political solution, and unable to persevere even in a sham political process, this movement may revert to armed struggle. For the moment, it has not done so. Even Hamas is endorsing, at least for now, a strategy of “popular struggle,” rather than launching missile attacks on Israel.
An alternate scenario is for the Palestinian national movement to seek its future in Jordan. Admittedly, such a solution is not on the horizon. But given Jordan’s Palestinian majority, for the long run this demographic imperative cannot be totally dismissed.
A third scenario would see the Palestinian public integrate, albeit reluctantly and out of lack of choice, into Israel (the so-called “one-state” solution) while constantly fighting for all the rights it can get, both civil and national. This scenario is not materializing either.
Therefore, the only current development is further descent into decay and political extinction.
Given the Palestinian inability to renounce the “right of return,” some would ask: Were there ever potential exit points from the conflict?
Two hypothetical scenarios come to mind: Had King Hussein accepted a peace treaty in return for an Israeli withdrawal immediately after the 1967 war, the “right of return” issue might have faded, gradually but significantly. Had Israel persisted in its principled refusal to recognize the PLO, the standard-bearer of the “right of return,” and attempted to reach a gradual solution with a local Palestinian leadership, a more realistic, albeit bloody, process, could have commenced. This could have received significant political backing from Egypt, had Sadat survived.
But all this is both hypothetical and moot.
As long as the Palestinians fail to make a historical ideological change and forego the “right of return” component of their national identity and struggle, they have no prospect of actualizing any real national goal.
One hopes, for the Palestinians’ sake, that it will not take them two millennia—as it took the Jews—to accept the need for moderation and pragmatism. Abbas’s and the PLO’s conviction that Israel is a colonialist project that is inexorably doomed will only prolong their suffering.
Yigal Carmon is founder and president of MEMRI.