The Right and the Return

For most Palestinians, agreeing to a two-state solution does not usually include agreeing to the principle of two states for two peoples.

Ruth Gavison
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Ruth Gavison

In his article "The problems are already here" (Haaretz, October 1), Danny Rubinstein reported that the Palestinians will oppose any move - which is said to be at the basis of the talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas - toward recognizing not only Israel's right to exist, but also its status as the state of the Jewish people. This opposition stems from both the implications of such recognition for the status of Arab citizens of Israel and the concession of the right of return that it implies. Rubinstein also recommended arriving at a compromise under which Israel would recognize the right of return, but would absolutely forbid its implementation through the return of the refugees and their descendents to Israel itself.

I fear that Rubinstein's recommendation does not take into account the legal and moral significance of the recognition of rights. It is also not based on a correct reading of the positions of the Palestinians and their supporters.

In actuality, the opposition that Rubinstein describes reflects a consistent and principled position held by both the Palestinians and their supporters here and abroad. For most Palestinians, agreeing to a two-state solution does not usually include agreeing to the principle of two states for two peoples. The difference between the two is critical, both with respect to the state of Israel and with respect to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the important vision documents drafted by representatives of Israel's Arab minority, as well as in an article that Rubinstein quoted, the assumption is that a Jewish state cannot be democratic and grant equality to the Arab minority living in it. This is a position that undermines the justification for a Jewish nation-state.

Israel's red line is not merely preventing the refugees' return in actuality; rather, it is the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is so not only because that is indeed the situation in Israel, but because such a situation is legitimate and justified. The Jewish people, too, has a right to self-determination in part of its historic homeland. Not only the Palestinians.

The distinction between rights and reality must be taken seriously. An individual, or a people, can live for a long time with a reality that they perceive as unjust when their lives are dedicated to amending it. Over the long term, it is difficult to defend a reality that is based - even in the eyes of the people that benefits from it - solely on force. It is important that the Jews understand the depth of the Palestinians' longings to return to their homes. However, recognizing the right of return - rather than merely the desire to return - would be perceived as recognizing that the Jews lack the right to remain a majority in their own country.

Should Israel recognize the right of return, there will always be some Palestinians who will argue, as they are already arguing, that this right is sacrosanct and should not be relinquished in negotiations. Recognition is liable not only to sabotage reconciliation, but also to ignite a renewed struggle - and this time, in the name of a right that Israel itself has recognized.

Rubinstein conceded too easily. The debate over whether international law recognizes the right of return, either by virtue of various human rights charters or by virtue of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, has not been settled. Many researchers, including some who are not supporters of Israel, believe that international law does not recognize the right of return. The debate is raging precisely because the recognition of rights has far-reaching implications for the status of demands to realize them.

A just and stable peace between Jews and Palestinians is a critical interest for both peoples. The "two states for two peoples" solution grants neither everything they desire, but does give each of them an essential part of it. A two-state solution that does not recognize the right of both peoples to self-determination in a part of their homeland would be a dangerous and unstable solution for both peoples, and for the entire region.

Israel has an obligation - to its citizens, to the Jewish people and to all the inhabitants of the region - to act in a considered and cautious way, so as not to weaken the Jewish people's right to self-determination in part of its homeland. The Palestinians should not be required to give up the right of return, but Israel does not need to recognize it. The time has certainly come for the issue of the Palestinian refugees to be settled in a humane and proper way via comprehensive diplomatic talks, and the refugees are entitled to compensation for their lost property. But the realization of their "right" must not be allowed to torpedo both peoples' chances for a life of independence, liberty and dignity.

The writer is the founding president of Metzilah: Center for Humanistic, Liberal, Jewish and Zionist Thought.



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