Discussions of last week’s Bahrain Conference have stressed the point that the Conference was designed to deal only with economic issues. It was to be followed by a conference that would be attended by representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority at which the political issues would be discussed and, hopefully, a peace agreement would be reached.
What appears to have been overlooked is that the Bahrain Conference directly addressed the most important political issue in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, an issue that must be resolved if peace is to be attained: the Palestinian claim of a “right of return.” That is the claim that calls for the mass migration to Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria of about 40,000 surviving Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab wars against Israel plus about 5,500,000 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees. All of them are now served by the UN Relief and Works Agency, which keeps them classified as Palestinian refugees, who are deliberately segregated from other members of the Arab communities among which they live. Their mass migration to Israel would end Israel as a majority-Jewish state and thus end the existence of the State of Israel. The claim of a “right of return” is thus designed to attain the long-term objective of the anti-Zionists: the end of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
The goal of the Bahrain Conference was to make a major initial contribution to the cause of peace. That would be done by providing significant help for the economic development of the above-mentioned five political entities, West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. New job opportunities would be created through investments, totaling $50 billion, that would help all their residents, including the “Palestinian refugees”, who would become fully integrated into the communities in which they have lived for all or most of their lives.
Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues in the Palestinian Authority leadership have rejected the proposed assistance program. They have made it clear that they are not interested in a program designed to provide a better life for the millions of Palestinians who are classified as “refugees” if it means giving up their plan to end the existence of the majority-Jewish state through mass immigration.
On the other hand, it appears that the leadership of some Arab states and also some Palestinian businessmen are sympathetic to the Bahrain Conference proposals and are indeed prepared to accept the existence of the State of Israel in the Middle East. The question that is open now is whether these supporters of economic progress will be prepared to assert themselves in the period ahead, help keep the basic concept of a two-state solution alive and ultimately lead to its implementation. We’ll have to wait a while and see whether the Bahrain Conference does have such positive results.
What is clear, however, is that there is no point to entering into a discussion now of borders, the status of East Jerusalem, and other political issues, if the Palestinian Authority continues to insist on its claim of a “right of return.” It should be quite obvious that no Government of Israel will sign a peace agreement that embodies a program to end Israel’s existence as a State.
It so happens that in the Camp David negotiations of 2000, in which Prime Minister Barak and PLO leader Arafat represented the two sides, President Clinton, in his “Clinton Parameters,” came up with a similar proposal for the “right of return” issue, a proposal which also called for a program of substantial financial assistance to the “Palestinian refugees.” The Parameters made it clear that the proposed peace agreement would not compel Israel to accept Palestinian immigrants based on the “right of return,” but that President Clinton would help get the cooperation of a number of countries throughout the world that would accept Palestinian refugees as immigrants and that he would seek to raise the billions needed to resettle the migrants. As we know, Arafat did not accept the Clinton proposal, which would indeed have provided the two-state solution.
In analyzing the problem that we continue to face in any effort to attain an Israeli/Palestinian peace, we need to note that it was close to a hundred years ago that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini developed the ideology of most emphatic rejection of Jewish migration to the Palestinian Mandate. The State of Israel has now been in existence for 71 years, but the Palestinian leadership continues to adhere to al-Husseini’s ideology: no Jewish-majority state. As we in AJIRI have noted, this outlook, which rejects peace, is supported by the UN General Assembly through its annual enactment of the resolutions that extend the mandates of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) and the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR). CEIRPP and DPR are committed to advancing the Palestinian claim of a “right of return.” How, indeed, can we expect the Palestinian leadership to give up a claim that the UNGA endorses year after year?
What the outcome of last week’s Bahrain Conference demonstrates is that it is critically important for all relevant decision makers on the international scene to understand that to attain an Israeli/Palestinian peace we need a Palestinian leadership that accepts the existence of the State of Israel and gives up the idea of ending Israel’s existence through a large-scale population transfer. Votes against the CEIRPP and DPR would play an important role in achieving that result. That would be an important step forward in realizing the promise of the Bahrain Conference.
Amb. Richard Schifter chairs the American Jewish International Relations Institute and is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and special assistant on the National Security Council.