Published in The Jewish Press, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
At a joint press conference with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in early July, Bill Clinton was asked whether, having insisted on the right of Kosovo refugees to return home, he would now insist on the right of Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes in Israel. President Clinton’s answer was “whether refugees go home depends in part on how long they’ve been away and whether they wish to go home.… I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free, and were free, to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live.”
In asserting that the Palestinians should be free to settle wherever they want to live in Israel, Clinton would seem to be recognizing the Palestinian “right of return” that, if fulfilled, could quickly mean the death knell for Israel by submerging all vestiges of Jewish statehood under a demographic tidal wave.
The “right of return,” which still is at the top of the Palestinians’ demands, advocates entitling any Arab or his ancestor who lived before 1948 in the territory that became Israel to move back and reclaim the land from the Jews. Presently, Israel’s population consists of 6 million people, with 4.8 million being Jewish and the rest Arab. If the “right of return” was to be implemented, up to 4.5 million Arab refugees could return, and the Jews would lose their majority. This could result in the whole area west of the Jordan river becoming another Arab state. As Qadaffi of Libya himself has said, “By the return of the refugees, there would be no more Israel … If they accept, then Israel would be ended.”
What really happened
For the President to compare the Kosovo refugees with the Palestinians is to be ignorant of or purposely indifferent to what really happened in 1948.
In 1947, the Arabs rejected a U.N. Partition plan calling for the creation of separate Jewish and Arab states in the area west of the Jordan River. When Israel, wishing to create a safe haven for thousands of Holocaust Jewish refugees, declared statehood in May 1948, five Arab countries attacked. On the day these armies invaded the new state of Israel, Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, declared: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.” He assured the Arab peoples that the “occupation of Palestine and of Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade.”
The Palestinian Arabs were encouraged by the Arab governments to leave their land, homes and property and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states to clear the way for the invading Arab armies “lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down.” In 1954, the Jordanian daily Al Difau quoted this telling comment from one of the refugees: “The Arab governments told us: Get out so that we get in. So we got out but they did not get in.” As late as 1963 the Cairo newspaper Akhbar Al Yom was still able to write: “On May 15 … the mufti of Jerusalem appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country, because the Arab armies were about to enter and fight in their stead.”
Six hundred fifty thousand Arabs fled the country, the majority of whom left on their own at the encouragement of Arab leaders and in fear of the upcoming war. In a few cases they were expelled by Jewish fighters. But in places such as Haifa, Tiberias and other well-documented examples, the Jews pleaded with their Palestinian Arab neighbors to stay. Sixty thousand of those Arabs who stayed behind in Israel became Israeli citizens soon after the war with equal rights in a democratic society.
Fifty years later, there are more than 12 Arab Israeli members of Parliament; an Arab ran to be the Prime Minister of Israel in the last election; Miss Israel is an Arab; and an Arab sits as a judge on Israel’s Supreme Court.
Contrary to the fate of those who stayed, the Arabs who fled to surrounding Arab countries were kept in refugees camps by their Arab “brothers.” Except for Jordan, no Arab country welcomed the Palestinians or offered them citizenship. The PLO and other Arab countries actually acted to prevent them from leaving the camps. For the PLO and the Arab states, these refugees camps have been a propaganda bonanza for the world to censure Israel and has been a fertile soil for the recruitment of new “fighters” to terrorize Israel. The consistent refusal of Arab leaders to solve this problem is particularly tragic because it would have been so easy to do. Since World War II, there have been well over 50 million refugees from many countries, and almost all have been successfully resettled. That the 50 million Arabs in 1948 could not absorb 650,000 Arab refugees and have not finished the job after 50 years, even with their oil wealth, is an indication of their cynical manipulation to perpetuate the problem. By faith, by language, by race and by social organization, they were indistinguishable from their fellow Arabs in the host countries, and the entire population could have been absorbed by 20 Arab countries, which have more than 514,000 square miles of mostly underdeveloped land.
An even exchange
Fifty years ago the Arab countries were involved in “ethnic cleansing” of Jews. Losing the war and failing to exterminate the Jewish state, the Arab countries from 1948 to 1952, expelled 800,000 Jews from their countries, forcing them to leave their homes and properties behind. In 1948, Israel, with a population of 650,000 Jews and a crushing defense burden, successfully absorbed 800,000 Jewish refugees from the same war that produced the Arab refugees. Israel, of course, did not incarcerate its refugees in special camps as the Arabs did, but quickly integrated them into Israel society. At the cost of $1.3 billion, the fledging Jewish state took in Jewish refugees from Morocco to Iraq and housed, educated and employed them so today they are no longer distinct from any other Israelis.
According to the Oslo agreement, the negotiations over the final and permanent status of the territories, Jerusalem and settlements should also include negotiations over the Arab refugees. For Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to continue to insist that tiny Israel also resettle all the Arab refugees is unjust and unrealistic. There was, in fact, an even exchange of populations between the Arab and the Jewish states as a consequence of the Arabs’ war against Israel and their expulsion of the Jews from their lands. Such exchanges of population have occurred several times this century. Millions of people were exchanged between Bulgaria and Greece in 1919, between Greece and Turkey in 1923, and between India and Pakistan in 1947. In none of these cases has anyone ever seriously suggested reversing the exchange, let alone reversing only one side of them.
There is political consensus among the Jewish population in Israel that Arab refugees can never return to Israel, since it would mark the end of the Jewish state. The left in Israel, which advocates the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, supports it in order to be separated from the Arab Palestinians and not be overwhelmed by them demographically. The Israelis on the left believe financial compensation for the refugees and an independent Palestinian state, which would be free to absorb the refugees, will satisfy Arafat.
But Arafat repeatedly states there will be no peace and stability in the region as long as the inalienable national rights of the Palestinian people are ignored, including the “rights of return,” self determination and the establishment of its independent state whose capital is Jerusalem. In separating these terms as he habitually does, Arafat and his associates are indicating to an Arab audience in a well-understood code that a West Bank state is merely part of its plan to bring an end to Israel. The term self-determination is intended for the Arab communities inside Israel who, after the establishment of a Palestinian state, will claim their right to independence in regions in Israel with an Arab majority in Galilee and the Negev. Abu Mazen, second in command to Yassir Arafat, demanded last month that Israel withdraw from the Galilee in addition to demanding the imposition of the U.N. partition plan. If these multiple amputations are not enough to finish Israel off, the “right
of return” ensures it ultimate destruction.
President Clinton is eager to leave a comprehensive Middle East peace as a significant part of his legacy. I hope history would not prove that his legacy led to the destruction of the only Jewish state.