The Return Of 'The Right'

I surprise nobody by remarking what a difficult time this is for Israelis and Palestinians. In many ways, the sides are closer than ever to sensing what a modus vivendi feels like, as the institutions and economy of a Palestinian state gradually take shape, and the parameters of an initial deal become more widely understood by the international community. For the younger generations, who live more and more in cyberspace, the issue of land per se seems less and less relevant to quality of life. And yet I cannot remember a time of relative calm when the sheer hatred between the two sides has been more palpable, and the ultras on both sides are on the ascendancy, enjoying (and fueling) the resulting polarization.

Late last summer, I thought I'd take a step back and simply ask why we are so stuck. The result is this long essay in the current Harper's on the Palestinian right of return (for now, behind the magazine's paywall, I'm afraid, but a year's subscription to this great magazine is about the cost of lunch).

IN A NUTSHELL, the article argues that the sides are not simply stuck because of the Israeli occupation and settlement policies, inflammatory and destructive as these are, or because of Hamas' arguable power. Rather, the vast majority of people on each side hold to nonnegotiable principles of identity, and understandable but exaggerated fears regarding the other side's intentions. These make the polarization serious even if demagogic rejectionists were not exploiting them.

Most important in this context is the Palestinian right of return, which is not just another matter to be settled or finessed once a border has been agreed to. It is a nonnegotiable demand for Palestinians and cuts to the heart of what the Palestinian nation is. The problem is, Israelis tend to hear the demand through a prism that is different from that of Palestinians. And the prism is of a piece with the Israelis' own nonnegotiable demand, that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish national home, or even more vaguely, the state of the Jewish people. What are these prisms?

FOR ALL THE obvious reasons, the Palestinian nation is unselfconscious about its cultural life. Were it not for their confrontation with historic Zionism, the Palestinians would be virtually indistinguishable from other Muslim and Christian Arabs in the Fertile Crescent. Palestinian identity derives from a deep and abiding sense of injustice done to many but specific Palestinian families. Palestinians as a whole feel the dispossession and suffering of these families have never been acknowledged, let alone redressed or compensated.

Israelis, for their part, are extremely selfconscious regarding their cultural distinction, also for obvious reasons. They can easily imagine the world with Jews and Jewish culture extinguished. They look at America and see personal successes but, for Jewish civilization, a wasteland. They think of themselves as the last best hope for preserving Jewish language and everything this subtends. The article attempts to recapitulate the history of the confrontation between these rival needs.

It should come as no surprise, yet does, that people of good faith on both sides are still talking past each other.When Palestinians speak of a right of return they are really insisting on the centrality of the individual rights of Palestinian families, historically, but also gesturing toward the contemporary rights of Arabs in the state of Israel. They want their day in court, as it were, but also constitutional protections, "equality" going forward, something they think historic Zionism never accorded them.

For their part, Israelis hear the demand for a right of return and immediately assume Palestinians want to flood them with Arabic and Muslim culture and snuff out Jewish national identity. So they turn things around and insist that, before talks could get serious, Palestinians must recognize the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. What Palestinians hear is that Israel is demanding Palestinians accept a Zionist movement and state that once displaced them and now create institutions that discriminate against them.

WHAT CAN WE learn from this? For some time, most of us have assumed that the best way to approach peacemaking is by getting to a border, building confidence, and dealing with the right of return last. But perhaps this is misguided. (It is a little like a divorcing couple trying to come to an agreement about property before they have taken care of custodianship of the children.)

Rather, I argue, Israelis interested in peace should agree up front to participate in an international commission that will carefully investigate the property losses and pain and suffering of Palestinian families. (Olmert offered something like this in his negotiations with Abbas.) There are other actions, flowing from the establishment of this commission, that Israelis should agree to, including modalities for compensating refugees and, in various cases, allowing them to return to Israel should they choose to (though polls show most would not). I go into these modalities in the article.

At the same time, Palestinian leaders should agree in advance that Israel is the country where the distinct civilization of the historic Jewish people will find its contemporary expression. It is disingenuous on the part of Palestinian leaders, even moderates like Abbas, to say that they recognize Israel but have no intention of endorsing a "Jewish state" (or something like this) for fear of condemning Israeli Arabs to second class citizenship. If there are things about the Israeli state apparatus that Palestinians reject, that is, in addition to the occupation, they should say so--but this should not prevent their affirming Israel's purpose to provide a Jewish national home.

Both sides, in other words, have to state a view regarding the proper boundary between individual rights and national-cultural survival, just the way Canadians have had to, or members of the EU had to. Palestinians have to stop talking about the Jews as if they were referring to just another religion in some larger secular state, or about historic Zionism as if the Naqba and occupation are all there is to say about it. Israelis have to stop talking about Palestinians as if refugees who demand attention to their grievances are inviting genocide or Israeli Arabs who want a "state of its citizens" are calling for the end of Jewish national identity.

ALL OF THIS brings us to a culminating point, which I take up at the end of the article. The right of return is the most dramatic but by no means the only issue that forces Israelis and Palestinians to confront how to reconcile individual rights to national rights. This reconciliation cannot be achieved without certain confederative institutions that, say, permit certain Palestinian returnees to live as "resident aliens" in Israel (and may well allow some Jewish settlers to live in Palestine as resident aliens).

In fact, no two-state solution is even conceivable without any number of confederative institutions: a single municipality for Jerusalem, and international custodian for the holy basin, an international custodian to administer security arrangements on the Jordan River, institutions that guarantee the sharing of water, electromagnetic spectrum, and many other benefits. This has nothing to do with the sides loving each other--no more than the French loved Germans at the launch of the Common Market.

In short, the right of return can become a cause of a fight to the finish. Or it can be an invitation to finally settle this conflict humanely and imaginatively--and fully. Again, you can download the entire article here.