Rights of Return and Recognition Cannot Be Swapped

By Leonard Fein

Published October 20, 2010.
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In a recent New York Times essay, published Oct. 14, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, argues forcefully on behalf of the call by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. “Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness,” he writes, “is the very foundation of peace, its DNA.”

Many others are puzzled by Netanyahu’s call. Israel is, after all, de facto a Jewish state. It would not be “more” Jewish were the Palestinians to agree to the fact, nor is it a whit less Jewish for want of their agreement. Something else must be going on here.

And, indeed, Oren proposes several arguments, all but one either irrelevant or misleading. So, for example, in order to “prove” the venerability of Jewish statehood, he cites both the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and the 1922 declaration by the League of Nations, recognizing the “historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine” as “the grounds for reconstituting their national home.” But the fact is that “national home” and “state” are not the same thing. Indeed, it was not until 1942, at the Biltmore Conference (so named because it was held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City) that the Zionist movement itself, for the first time, elevated statehood to its central demand.

And Oren knows all this as well as anyone, better than most. In his 2007 book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” he writes, “Convening in the art deco dining halls of New York’s Biltmore Hotel in May 1942, Zionist representatives approved an eight point plan that, for the first time [emphasis added] explicitly called for the creation of a ‘Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.’ Gone were the proposals for an amorphous Jewish national home in Palestine, for carving out Jewish cantons and delineating autonomous regions within an overarching Arab state.” And even then, the call for statehood was opposed by, among others: Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization (1920-31, 1935-46), Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah in 1912 and Hashomer Hatza’ir, a prominent socialist Zionist party.

Five long years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted its approval of the establishment of “an independent state.” On the heels of the Kingdom of Night, the Republic of Hope.

In his Times essay, Oren goes on to say that “Israelis need to know that further concessions would not render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands,” but immediately follows those words with a sentence that deflates them: “Though recognition of Israel as the Jewish state would not shield us from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.”

Come again? How would it prove that? If it is not a shield against violence, what is its value? Yes, it would be nice were the Palestinians to acknowledge what everyone in the world knows, that Israel is, as a matter of obvious fact, the Jewish state. Those among the Palestinians who advocate a two-state solution to the conflict already implicitly do exactly that. They may wish the Jews would miraculously disappear, as many Jewish Israelis surely would celebrate were the Palestinians to vanish. But such fantasies are pointless. What matters is that the West Bank Palestinian leadership is prepared, or seems to be, to make its own set of concessions, concessions that include the acceptance of Israel “as is.”

And so we come to the one argument put forward by Oren that rings both true and weighty. “For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state also means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinians state in all but name.” In other and plainer words, Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state would mean Palestinian abandonment of their “right of return.” And Oren says, almost in passing, that while Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would enable Netanyahu to “consider” extending the moratorium on West Bank construction, it is not a prerequisite for direct talks.

This is roughly where only the most stalwart remain attentive; it is simply too convoluted for most. The Palestinians say: “No more talks without a moratorium extension.” The Israeli prime minister says: “No more moratorium: We have the right to build, and will build, but if the Palestinians say we are Jewish, we will consider another recess in building.”

It is perfectly reasonable for Israel to insist that the new state of Palestine should be the place where the Palestinian right of return is exercised. In his day, Yasir Arafat broadly hinted at his acceptance of that position, and it has since then been well understood by members of the Arab League and widely accepted by the international community. It is, obviously, a matter to be discussed and decided in the course of negotiations. It ought not be part of a two-stage solution, a solution that starts with Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and then uses that recognition to proclaim that the right of return problem has thereby been resolved.

Oren observes, “Some analysts have suggested Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not want.” But of course Netanyahu wants peace. The question has never been about whether he, or any Israeli leader, “wants” peace. The question has always been, and remains today, whether the kinds of compromises that a serious peace agreement necessarily entails are acceptable. That is not an endorsement of “peace at any price” — it is an assertion that peace does have a price. The down payment that Ambassador Oren describes and endorses, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, is at best symbolic, a side issue. But this is time for substance, for talk of borders and Jerusalem and settlements and security and yes, the right of return.

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