Akiva Eldar, Carlo Strenger
The Guardian (Editorial)
December 14, 2010 - 1:00am

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been endlessly long, tragic, filled with wrong decisions on all sides and there are many ways of telling the story. Saeb Erekat, in his recent article on the Palestinian right of return, chooses to begin his story ("narrative" is the fashionable word) with the assassination of Count Bernadotte, the first UN mediator, by Jewish militants commanded by Yitzchak Shamir, later prime minister, in 1948. The implication is clear: Israelis killed justice from the very outset.

It would, of course, be possible to start telling the story with Hadj Amin el Husseini's visits in Nazi Berlin and his enthusiastic endorsement of the Endlösung, the plan to exterminate all Jews. From there we could move to the Palestinian rejection in 1947 of UN resolution 181 which called for the partition of historical Palestine, the many decades of Palestinian rejection of the state of Israel, through the murder of Israeli athletes during the Olympic games in 1972 to the quotations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Constitution of Hamas.

Furthermore the Israeli side could, with good reason, argue that while the fate of the refugees is no doubt a deep tragedy, it should be noted that the Palestinian leadership and Arab states have cared more about the right of return than the refugees themselves, most of whom have passed away. Instead of giving them citizenship and integrating them into the host states, their refugee status was carefully nurtured, and human wellbeing was sacrificed for political interests.

This competition of narrative and counter-narrative can be continued endlessly; we can forever pitch the suffering of Palestinians against that of Jews; we can find proof of the other side's inhumanity, and point out how righteous our own side is. The result will be perpetuation of the conflict, and bequeathing endless suffering for future generations of Israeli and Palestinian children.

Nevertheless some facts need to be set straight: Erekat repeatedly mentions UN resolution 194. The fact is that Israel accepted this non-binding resolution, whereas the Arab world didn't, and resolution 242 was accepted by Israel, while the Palestinians took until 1988 to come around to endorsing it.

But the time has come to move beyond the war of narratives, and to go about the pragmatic work of ending this conflict. Both authors of this article have been supporters of a Palestinian state long before the PLO and Israel ever met; we have always recognised Palestinian suffering, and we never thought that recognising the Palestinian Nakba is inconsistent with a firm stance on Israel being the homeland of the Jews.

Both of us believe that the only path to peace is a dignified existence for Jews and Palestinians. We have been opposed to Israel's settlement policies, which we consider to be unjust and an obstacle to peace, and we think that East Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine. But we are deeply concerned by statements like Saeb Erekat's article that seem to make peace impossible even for liberals like us.

It is time for Palestinians to realise that they are no longer victims of history, but free agents who will have to make choices. International support for a Palestinian state has never been stronger, and it is a matter of time until this state will be internationally recognised along the 1967 borders. In a peculiar repetition of history, the UN general assembly may soon recognise the partition of Palestine once again, this time to fulfil the national aspiration of the Palestinian people.

This is the moment when the Palestinian leadership must avoid repeating the mistake of 1947, when they rejected the original partition resolution, and make clear that they truly accept Israel's existence as the homeland of the Jews.

Hence, at this historical moment, Erekat's article is disappointing. He is not just a private citizen, but the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, and he knows Israel and its internal dynamics very well. He knows that raising the right of return at this moment plays into the hands of Israel's right wing: they will be able to say: "We always told you so: the two-state solution is just a Palestinian plot to incorporate the Jewish state into the Greater State of Palestine."

What does Saeb Erekat mean by demanding Israel's recognition of the Palestinian right of return? If it means that Israel will accept its part in the responsibility of the Palestinian tragedy, and primarily provide restitution, there is a realistic chance for resolution of the conflict.

But Erekat's formulations do not bode well: when he says that Israeli recognition of refugee rights "will not change the reality in the Middle East overnight", he steps on the deepest fears of Israelis. Erekat cannot say in good faith that this "will not lead to an existential crisis for Israel", because he implies that, over time, Israel will disappear as a homeland for the Jews, because beyond a certain point Jews will be a minority in the pre-1967 borders.

Hence we call upon the Palestinian leadership to state clearly what exactly it demands. It will have to be less equivocal on which of the two meanings of "right of return" it endorses. On this question the future of the whole region hinges, and this is not up for Israel to decide. It is time for the Palestinians to realise that the future of the region is now in their hands.


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