There can be no right of return in a Mideast peace
By Martin Wolf
Published: June 18 2003 5:00 | Last Updated: June 18 2003 5:00

What chances are there of peace between the Arabs and Israel? It was partly with this question in my mind that I travelled, two weeks ago, to Beer-Sheva to visit the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as a guest of Avishay Braverman, its president and a friend and former colleague at the World Bank. My visit ended the day before the Aqaba summit between President George W. Bush and the two prime ministers, Ariel Sharon of Israel and Abu Mazen of the Palestinian Authority. At that moment in Israel, I found optimism. Today, I suspect, most such optimism has vanished.

I have never written about the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. This is partly because I am personally engaged. Both my parents were refugees from Hitler. In my father's case, his immediate family managed, with difficulty, to reach Palestine, where my relatives remain to this day. Yet for me, as must be true for the majority of Jews, the rebirth of an independent Jewish state after two millennia seems a miracle. Its existence is a reason for joy.

It is also, for all its evident imperfections, a source of pride. My visit reminded me once again why. I saw a dynamic, world-class university, one of a remarkably large number in such a tiny country. I saw a beleaguered country that has managed to achieve a standard of living almost twice as high as that of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. I saw a lively democracy. And I saw all this in a country whose population has risen 10-fold since its foundation, with most of these immigrants from countries where they were, at best, tolerated inferiors.

Yet many view Israel not as a miracle, but as a brutal occupying power. For many Arabs, Israelis are neo-crusader interlopers. For many Europeans, Israelis are neo-colonialist oppressors. Even well-intentioned observers seem sure that a just peace would appear if Mr Sharon were to abandon Israeli control over the West Bank and uproot the settlements.

I wish it were so. But people who argue that the real problem is Israeli control over the West Bank or the plight of the refugees have their history back to front. Both Israeli control over the West Bank and the refugees are the consequence of wars fought to destroy what many Arabs call the "Zionist entity". For this reason, Israelis fear that the Arab objective remains Israel's destruction.

It is important to remember, for example, that the pre-1967 borders were themselves armistice lines reached at the end of the 1948 war. If the land conquered after the 1967 war is "occupied", so must be much of pre-1967 Israel. It is hard to believe that these historically arbitrary borders would, once Israel has withdrawn from its 1967 conquests, be accepted as the legitimate borders of a predominantly Jewish state.

This fear is reinforced by repeated insistence on the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. If the refugees were to return, Israel would soon, given the differences in birth rates, become another state with a Jewish minority. So, naturally, sceptical Israelis view this demand as code for destruction of their state.

The belief that this remains the objective of their adversaries is supported not just by what they demand, but also by what they say. Hamas has made no secret of its determination to destroy Israel. The breakdown of the negotiations at Camp David and then Taba, in 2000, and the subsequent outbreak of a well-organised campaign of suicide bombings, strengthens the scepticism. Even a well-known revisionist historian, Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University, has reached the conclusion that Mr Arafat's rejection indicated the concerted will of Palestinian Arabs never to accept the Jewish state.

At this point, many will respond: and rightfully so. A terrible injustice was done to Palestinian Arabs by the creation of Israel, one they should not be expected to accept. That an injustice was done seems evident. People may differ, however, on the gravity of that injustice. The world has known many huge waves of refugees. The normal response - in postwar Germany, for example - has been to absorb them as soon as it is clear they cannot reasonably be expected to return. Arab states could have absorbed the refugees without difficulty, as Israel absorbed the roughly similar number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Israel's land area is, after all, less than 0.2 per cent of that of the members of the Arab League. Arab states have preserved these hapless people as refugees not out of concern for their welfare, of which one sees little, but as a weapon against Israel.

For all these reasons, Israelis are sceptical of the willingness of Palestinian Arabs, indeed of the Arab world, to accept their country's existence. This has direct consequences for Israeli demands, since no Israeli leader would put at risk the state itself.

If a new Arab state is to be created with borders just a few kilometers from the sea, Israel will not let it become a threat to its security: it will not be allowed to arm itself for offensive war; it will not be permitted to ally itself with, or be at risk of absorption by, its neighbours; and it will not be allowed to be a base for open-ended terrorist attacks against Israel.

Nor is this all. If the new Palestinian state is to be stable, its people must prosper. That requires integration with the more sophisticated Israeli economy. A necessary condition for that is the rule of law within the Palestinian state. Finally, peace will require abandoning the demand for the right of return. No Israeli government would grant this demand. The solution has to be resettlement, plus compensation.

Any idea of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is insane. Direct Israeli rule over millions of non-citizens is morally corrosive, while letting settlements dictate policy is mad. Israeli control over the West Bank needs to end, provided that is consistent with maintaining its security. For all these reasons, the two-state solution is the only one conceivable. But reaching this solution does not depend on Israelis alone. Today's difficulties descend from the Arab refusal to accept Israel's secure existence. Unless that is seen to change, there will be no durable peace.