Who's afraid of renewing the peace process?
The fear of the peace process today is largely in the minds of the leaders of the Israeli right.
The Arab peace initiative, formerly known as the Saudi peace initiative, was recently declared by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be interesting and worth addressing. A pan-Arab summit will be held this week, and approving the peace initiative and declaring it to be a possible peace plan will be on the agenda.
In light of these developments, the chorus of refusal immediately began its well-known song. Its main argument is familiar, and relies on the assumption that accepting United Nations Resolution 194 from 1949 means recognizing the right of return and the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
This scare campaign led by those who fear the peace process, which relies on the mythical danger that Resolution 194 poses to the State of Israel, has no basis, as revealed by a simple examination of the resolution insofar as it relates to this matter.
In 1948, some 720,000 Palestinian refugees left Israel in the midst of the war, according to data from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. (Their number today ranges from an estimated 4 million to 5 million, and the refugees live primarily in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf states.) Resolution 194, which is from the same period, states that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Arab states, which were then opposed to the arrangement, voted against the resolution, which spoke of an end to the conflict and a peace deal.
An analysis of the resolution shows that the choice of words is not coincidental. Permission to return needs to be granted by the sovereign authority of the Israeli government, as former foreign minister Abba Eban has noted. This means that it is not some natural, vested right. (For instance, an Israeli citizen is allowed to enter the United States but doesn't have the right to do so. If the American authorities refuse to permit entry, the Israeli cannot sue them in court for violating his rights.) Moreover, Resolution 194 uses the word "permitted," not "right."
Even Arab leaders, including Palestinian Authority heads and the Syrian government, were aware of the deliberate intent of the words. At the Arab League session of March 29, 2002, they demanded that, in addition to mentioning Resolution 194, King Abdullah's Saudi peace initiative should also mention Resolution 14/224B, which states that Resolution 194 should be interpreted as requiring recognition of the right of return. Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom and his colleagues don't know what top PA officials apparently know.
Therefore, Resolution 194 is nothing but a straw man. The combination of the three political plans - that of the Arab League, the Clinton plan and the Geneva initiative - is certainly capable of bringing about a comprehensive agreement in the Middle East that would include an end to mutual demands, arrangements for the property question and a resolution of the issues of Jerusalem and the settlements.
Polls conducted on these issues have clearly shown that even though most of the Israeli public opposes the absorption, on a humanitarian basis, of even a few tens of thousands of 1948 refugees, nearly half is ready for a far-reaching arrangement on Jerusalem, whereby the Jewish neighborhoods will be in Israeli territory while the Arab neighborhoods will be in the Palestinian state. More than half of Israelis are already prepared for an annexation of 4 percent of the West Bank - the area that contains 80 percent of the settlements - in exchange for which Israeli territory of a similar size in the Gaza Strip area will be transferred to the PA. The public also widely supports the voluntary evacuation of settlers from the territories.
Therefore, the fear of the peace process today is largely in the minds of the leaders of the Israeli right, who scare the public with empty threats regarding Resolution 194 and other dangers, while the Israeli public - which is smarter than its leaders - is prepared to pay a dramatic price in land and the massive evacuation of settlers, without granting any right of return, in exchange for a comprehensive, genuine and fair peace agreement.
Avshalom Vilan is a Meretz-Yahad MK and Maurice Stroun is a researcher in biochemistry at the University of Geneva.