Between Prisoners and Captives

Had the Palestinians not demanded that Israel recognize their right of return, Israel would have had to invent it.

There are two ways of estimating the distance traveled by key Hamas figures - such as the organization's highest-ranking prisoner, Abdel Khaleq al-Natshe, one of the initiators of the National Reconciliation Document (also known as the "Prisoners' Document") - toward an agreement with Israel on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders. One is to measure the strength of the protests by Palestinian opponents of such an agreement, such as Khaled Meshal of Hamas. The second is to wait for the reactions of those on the Israeli side who favor unilateral action, such as Justice Minister Haim Ramon of Kadima. Meshal and his friends will deign to talk to Israel after we give up the Law of Return - in other words, after we eliminate the Zionist movement. In order for Ramon to give up the toy of unilateral action in favor of political negotiations, the Palestinians will first of all have to declare that they are giving up the right of return - in other words, that they are eliminating the Palestinian national movement.

Had the Palestinians not demanded that Israel recognize their right of return, Israel would have had to invent it. Otherwise, how would Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deal with the "Prisoners' Document" - authored by a sector considered the "chief rabbinate" of the Palestinian public - which sanctifies the Green Line as a permanent border between Israel and Palestine? How would the prime minister explain the invasive route of the "security fence," and how could he demand that the world recognize the "settlement blocs"? As long as the "right of return" is hovering in the air, the politicians can relax. They can always argue that the demand to bring back the refugees is nothing but an attempt to destroy the Jewish state by demographic means, and therefore, the agreement to the existence of two states within the 1967 borders is merely part of the "phased plan" [for eliminating Israel].

It is hard to understand why Israel is allowed to declare in advance that "Jerusalem will remain united forever," or that "Ariel is part of the State of Israel," whereas the Palestinians have to adapt their opening positions to those of Israel. Moreover, if the Palestinians surrender the right of return in advance, they are also liable by doing so to deny the refugees the right to demand monetary compensation for their property.

Unfortunately, however, this time as well, just as in the case of the Arab League's decision in Beirut in March 2002, the voice of the Israeli party hacks is stronger than the voice of reason. A few days after the Beirut gathering, law professor Eyal Benvenisti, an international expert on refugees, wrote that the decision "recognizes by implication that the refugees or the body representing them have no absolute right. Their demand to return is a matter for trilateral negotiations: among representatives of the Palestinians, the countries "hosting" the refugees and the Israeli government. Any agreement by the negotiating parties will exhaust the refugees' claims. Those who are not satisfied with this agreement will have difficulty appealing it by submitting lawsuits against Israel in some court or other" ?(Haaretz, April 4, 2002?).

Benvenisti interpreted this important decision as a signal from the Arab League to Israel that it understands and respects its fear of losing the Jewish character of the state due to a massive return of the 1948 refugees. It is even willing to force on the Palestinians a position opposed to their uncompromising demand and to wake them up from their dream of return. "Since the establishment of the state, Israel has been waiting for such an Arab position," said the law professor, in summing up his article. And he asked: "Will we now be willing to accept the Arab League's proposal and turn it into a binding agreement?"

After over four years, thousands killed and chaos in Fatah, this question acquires even greater validity. The Sharon-Peres government ignored the Arab League's proposal and preferred a targeted assassination of the Palestinian partner and unilateral moves. The Olmert-Peres government has received from the prisoners, from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and from pragmatic groups in the territories a second opportunity to reach an agreement. This may be the last opportunity.