Whose right of return is more sacred?

By Akiva Eldar


Iyar 29, 5765

It could be that there is some substance to the argument that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is plotting to eliminate the State of Israel by means of the right of return. It is true, more or less, like the prediction that Syrian President Bashar Assad is ripe for a peace agreement in return for the Golan Heights. The weight of both of these suppositions is no less than the informed assessments made with regard to the prime minister's plans for the Gaza Strip, in the not-too-distant past when he was insisting that there is no difference between Netzarim and Tel Aviv. Had you asked chief of staff Ehud Barak or head of Military Intelligence Moshe Ya'alon in June, 1993, whether Yitzhak Rabin would shake Yasser Arafat's hand - they would have burst out laughing. Had the decision been up to chief of staff Motteh Gur, we would be preparing to this day for the next war with Egypt.

Ya'alon is complaining that even after four years of fighting we have not succeeded in convincing even Fatah, the Palestinian ruling party, to recognize a Jewish state that will exist here for all eternity. This statement, with slight amendments, can be put into the mouth of someone from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. From his perspective, the fight by senior ministers in the Likud against the disengagement and the referendum among its registered party members are evidence that even after four-and-a-half years of fighting, the ruling party in Israel does not even recognize the right of the Palestinians to a mini-state in the Gaza Strip.

What should the Palestinians understand from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's confession to an Israeli newspaper to the effect that after the disengagement, he has no intention of evacuating additional territories? What would we say if a senior adviser to Abu Mazen were to tell a Palestinian newspaper that the Palestinian Liberation Organization will recognize a Jewish state after the Israelis become Finns? What difference is there between Abu Mazen's vague and sometimes contradictory statements concerning the solution to the refugee problem, and Sharon's declarations about the perpetuity of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem? Why should the right of return be less sacred to the Palestinians than the Temple Mount is to the Jews? Not to mention that while the Palestinians "are dreaming about the right of return to Israel," the Israelis are continuing to exercise unceasingly their "right of return" to territories in the West Bank.

In the absence of other means, the Israelis are determining their attitude toward the Palestinians on the basis of terror attacks and statements by Palestinian personages. The Palestinians are drawing conclusions from the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and from the declarations of Israeli personages. A serious assessment cannot cut the umbilical cord that links the occupier to the occupied and discuss the intentions of one without relating to the declarations of the other, never mind his deeds. In either case, the positions are to a large extent derived from internal political constraints. Abu Mazen is forced to pay the Hamas rebels, just as Sharon is scattering promises to the Likud rebels.

Divestment from a historical narrative, such as the right to Palestine, or the greater land of Israel, and to sites that are sacred to Judaism, or to Islam, is an agonizing concession like no other. Such an act is not done only in order to find favor in the rival's eyes. Israel has never offered the Palestinians real recompense for what Sharon calls painful concessions, such as giving up villages and houses.

Aaron Miller, the deputy of Dennis Ross, who was the head of U.S. president Bill Clinton's peace team, has recently joined a group of participants in the 2000 Camp David summit who are testifying that what happened there is not worthy of the name "negotiations." According to Miller, Arafat is no more to blame than Barak and Clinton.

Amos Malka, who headed Military Intelligence at that time, testified that none of the papers written then by the experts, upon which the chief of staff's assessments were based, determined that Fatah, as Ya'alon would have it, sees the right of return as "a demand to be realized." Intelligence sources on active duty are promising that today too they have no assessment refuting the assumption that the right of return is nothing but a Palestinian bargaining chip.

Until we invite them to the negotiating table and everyone lays down their cards, we shall not know whether we have missed out on peace, or whether we are fated to be killed and to kill.