Eye on the Middle East Jan/Feb 2002

According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Israeli Cabinet minister Dan Meridor hailed a recent Palestinian statement as “a major breakthrough.” Apparently the Palestinian Authority (PA) has offered to resettle Arab refugees in the coming Palestinian state rather than in Israel proper. The report said PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is willing to drop his demand for the “right” of millions of Palestinians to be relocated inside Israel’s Green Line. This statement is, according to Meridor, a major breakthrough. If Arafat is serious (which is always a consideration), it is indeed a major concession.

You will recall that the Camp David negotiations of July 2000 broke down largely because Arafat demanded a massive number of displaced Palestinians be relocated to Israel proper as well as to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat’s intractable stand on this point was clearly unacceptable to both the United States and Israel. As a result, despite the Israeli government’s overly generous land-grant offer, the talks collapsed, infuriating then-President Bill Clinton and the American administration.

Beyond the shadow of any doubt, this latest offer comes as a result of intense U.S. pressure to find at least an interim settlement of the thorny problems facing Israel and the PA at this time.

We are, of course, well aware that Mr. Arafat is accustomed to making promises he has no intention of keeping. This has been his pattern for decades.

Nusseibeh, chosen by Arafat as his chief envoy in Jerusalem, told the Associated Press that the Palestinians erred in insisting on the right of refugees to return to Israel proper.

Sari Nusseibeh, chosen by Arafat as his chief envoy in Jerusalem, told the Associated Press that the Palestinians erred in insisting on the right of refugees to return to Israel proper. Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor whose family has deep roots in Jerusalem, said the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state “not in a way that would undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state.”

Currently, about 5 million Jews and 1 million Arabs live in Israel. Although the Jewish population is growing by about 50,000 immigrants a year, the Arab population is increasing much faster.

If the Palestinian refugee issue were to be settled Nusseibeh’s way, two problems would be solved: (1) Israel would not face potential elimination by assimilation. That is to say, the Jewish nation would not become absorbed by a hostile state-within-a-state. (2) Disgruntled Israeli Arabs, disenchanted with the Jewish state, would have a place to go and live among their own people—a situation that could be healthy for both parties.

Many people fail to realize that, due to some of these factors, Israel did not annex the West Bank and Gaza when it captured the territories in the 1967 war. Yet it immediately annexed Jerusalem into the State of Israel. Israelis realized that if they incorporated the territories into the state and gave full citizenship to the Arabs there, eventually the significant and rapidly growing Arab populations of the territories would jeopardize Israel’s identity as a national Jewish entity. Conceivably, Israelis could be voted out of office in their own country.

Thus, if the Palestinian Authority has at last seen the folly of its demands for the massive “return” of refugees into the heartland of Israel, it would be a step in the right direction. In view of the way Yasser Arafat’s mind works, however, the offer may represent only a passing mood of the moment or, worse yet, another outright deception.

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