The Mutual Right of Return

'Anyone wishing to advance an agreement in the Land of Israel must create a narrative of conciliation, built not on ignorance but on an understanding of the sensitivities of the other side'

FILE PHOTO -  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a Palestinian cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Issam Rimawi/Pool/File Photo

There is no way to understand or forgive the statements made by the president of the Palestinian Authority at a session of the Palestinian National Council. His compatriots say that this is his way of atoning for the failure of the path he followed all his life as a leader – opposing terror and striving for an accord with Israel.

Ever since he was elected leader in January 2005 his path failed because all Israeli governments, knowing that he was the most moderate among Palestinian leaders, saw to it that he was humiliated and weakened. In effect, they opted for Hamas over him.

When Ehud Olmert attempted and ultimately succeeded in reaching an agreement with him at the end of the summer of 2008, Olmert’s resignation was already a fait accompli. Other than this episode, Israel’s governments squandered the opportunity that opened up before them on the day Mahmoud Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat. They didn’t want him or a compromise that he could deliver. That’s the truth of the matter.

Despite this, anyone wishing to advance an agreement in the Land of Israel — and such an accord is ineluctable — must create a narrative of conciliation, built not on ignorance but on an understanding of the sensitivities of the other side. The grave and vexing words uttered by Abbas attest more to ignorance and to a profound lack of understanding of the Israeli side and of the Jewish people.

The most sensitive and loaded emotional issue for both sides is their historical affinity to this land, in its entirety. Notwithstanding all the nonsense they’ve heard in the past week, Palestinians, must understand that the cradle of the historical legacy of the Jewish people lies in the heart of the West Bank. Jeremiah and Amos did not prophesize in Bat Yam or Holon, but in Anatot and Tekoa. Our national past is rooted in Shiloh and Beit El, on the road to Efrata.

Yes, we have a right to return to these places. However, all Israelis who support a two-state solution and a division of this land relinquish the exercising of this right, even at the heavy but unavoidable cost of evacuating tens of thousands of Israelis who have exercised this right. This concession is aimed at enabling a peaceful life in the Land of Israel, which includes a Jewish and democratic state on most of its territory.

The Palestinians cleave to the “right of return” but they have relinquished the return. Abbas said so publicly with regard to his family home in Safed, attracting heaps of abuse from Hamas. They know refugees will not return to live within the boundaries of a sovereign State of Israel. There is a reason Hamas finds it difficult to mobilize masses to participate in its provocative displays on the Gaza border. However, when they say “right of return” the Palestinians are referring to their historical affinity with Jaffa, Lod, Ramle and hundreds of villages that were abandoned in 1948. We as Israelis must understand and respect that.

One must distinguish between a right and its realization. A narrative of conciliation can be built on the understanding that for the sake of coexistence between two national entities in this land both sides relinquish the exercising of what each one of them sees as their historical right.

It’s possible that in response to a request by Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump will demand that the Palestinians concede the “right of return.” Currently, this is a surefire recipe for preventing any negotiations from taking place. But if, on the other hand, there is a mutual concession regarding the exercising of such a right, that is written into a narrative or conciliation,the road to dialogue may be opened.

Boldness is required on both sides in order to create a new formula that can replace the stalemate and the ignorance.

The writer is the director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College. He was a cabinet member and deputy minister in previous governments.