Rami Khouri
The Daily Star
December 9, 2009 - 1:00am

I have attended hundreds of meetings, conferences and symposia on Arab-Israeli peacemaking all my adult life during the past 40 years, and I am able to report that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Israelis and Arabs wish to achieve a negotiated, peaceful end to their conflict. The bad news is that this inclination to negotiate peace and coexistence is not being translated into a lasting agreement because of Israel’s refusal to come to grips with the core issue that matters for the Palestinians, which is their status as refugees.

The United States’ efforts this year to negotiate a resumption of negotiations captures both of these realities. It seems time to admit that attempts to evade, sugar-coat, or postpone coming to grips with the events of 1947-1948 in Palestine will always wreck all other signs of progress or hope. The prospects of agreeing on resolving the Palestinian refugee issue are slim right now, but they are not nil; yet the prospects of achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace without resolving the refugee issue are absolutely zero.

It is time for all parties to the conflict, and all those abroad who are trying to help resolve it, to come to terms with this simple fact. Two things happened in 1947-1948 that must be addressed simultaneously and seriously if a lasting peace accord is ever to be forged by Arabs and Israelis: Zionism triumphed and, in its eyes, the state of Israel was established as the homeland of the Jewish people; and, the national community of Palestinians was shattered and half the people were forced into exile, either by deliberate Zionist ethnic cleansing or by the normal dynamics of war that caused civilians to flee temporarily to safer areas.

A permanent resolution of the conflict must simultaneously address the core demands of Zionists and Palestinian and Arab nationalists. When this happened between Egypt, Jordan and Israel, permanent peace prevailed. For the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese to sign a peace agreements with Israel, the same approach is needed, which means a return of occupied land in exchange for normal relations. With the Palestinians, there is the added issue of resolving the problem of the approximately 750,000 refugees from 1947-1948, who, with their descendants, now number some 4.5 million.

The challenge that has eluded everyone to date is how to reconcile Zionism with Arabism, in other words how the Arabs can accept Israel as a predominantly Jewish state, while Israel acknowledges its role in the refugeehood of the Palestinians and takes steps to end that problem. The Arabs have all accepted the demand that they coexist in peace and normal relations with an Israeli state that is predominantly Jewish, as it is now, with Jews comprising around 80 percent of the population. The Israelis in return have not moved at all toward coming to terms with the legal, political and moral decisions they must take to play their central role in resolving Palestinian refugeehood – since they were the principal party in bringing it about.

It is about time that foreign peace mediators and the principal local actors become serious about addressing the core issues if they want to make progress toward a lasting and fair peace accord. The current Israeli superiority in military power will not bring it lasting peace and security because the Palestinians will not simply disappear into history – no more than the exiled Jews in Babylon went away to never return. Every time I see a Jewish friend or a foreign peace mediator, I remind them that the Palestinian exile since 1947-1948 is now five or six years longer than the Jewish exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC – where the Zionist hope and idea of return to an ancestral Jewish homeland was first born.

The Palestinians have passed through the same experience, two and a half millennia later, of seeking to end our exile through nationalist self-assertion and reaffirmation, along with patience and hard work. The Palestinian mindset focuses on eventual return and national reconstitution in the ancestral homeland. As the ancient Hebrews and modern Jews showed themselves and the world, such powerful mindsets do not disappear into the haze of history.

For now, the Palestinians and all Arabs have expressed a willingness to coexist with Zionism – if the Israelis in turn come to terms with how critical it is to acknowledge and resolve the refugee issue in a reasonable and fair manner that does not negate the idea of a predominantly Jewish state. This is a tough challenge, but it is made tougher by ignoring it. It remains the key to a breakthrough. It is the way that Zionism and Arabism can coexist, though for now it seems that Zionists broadly are not willing to acknowledge in the Palestinians the same national spirit and rights that they demanded for themselves.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017