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The Peace Illusion

There’s a good reason the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been solved: it can’t be.

Michael Mandelbaum

A Biden presidency promises a return to the status quo before the Trump years. In foreign policy this presumably will entail greater enthusiasm for America’s alliances in Europe and Asia, a suspension of trade wars with friendly countries (although not necessarily with China), and some distancing from the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. The Biden Administration would be well advised, however, not to resume one particular feature of pre-Trump American foreign policy: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For three decades, successive American presidents invested diplomatic capital and their own time in that process. Then-Vice President Biden assisted President Obama in attempting to bring about a settlement of the now century-long conflict through the establishment of a Palestinian state that would exist peacefully next to Israel. The effort failed in the past and is doomed to fail in the future as well, for a central but little-recognized reason: the Palestinians do not want such a state. Their overriding goal is the destruction of Israel and they will enter into no arrangements that require their acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East as permanent and legitimate.

Over the years the Palestinians and their representatives have provided massive and incontrovertible evidence that this is in fact their position. They have refused several generous Israeli offers of statehood and have offered no proposals of their own in return. They have taken no serious, concrete steps to prepare for statehood, and in their public statements and the curricula of their schools they have relentlessly anathematized the idea as well as the fact of Jewish sovereignty.

Both a symptom and a cause of the persistence of the conflict is the Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” which Palestinian negotiators have consistently stipulated as a nonnegotiable demand in the peace process. By this they mean that any living person who can claim descent from anyone who left the British Mandate of Palestine at the time of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is entitled to return to Israel and establish permanent residence there. The War of Return, a penetrating book published earlier this year by two Israelis, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, demonstrates that the claim has no moral, legal, or historical foundation, and that it has served as a weapon in the Palestinians’s ongoing campaign to destroy the state of the Jews rather than create their own.

The authors write in sorrow as well as in anger. Both situate themselves on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. Schwartz worked for the country’s best-known progressive daily newspaper, Ha‘aretz. Wilf was a member of the Israeli parliament, representing what was in the past its major left-of-center political grouping, the Labor Party. Both belonged to what used to be called the nation’s peace camp, which consisted of the large number of Israelis who wanted the kind of compromise settlement the United States was promoting for three decades. The peace camp no longer exists because those who were part of it, like the two authors, have concluded on the basis of bitter experience that the Palestinians do not seek peace.

The five million Palestinians who claim the right of return, or on whose behalf it is claimed, in fact do not have any such right, as Schwartz and Wilf painstakingly document. Palestinians became refugees in 1948 because, and only because, of the war of annihilation that first local Palestinians and then five Arab countries launched against the newly established Jewish state. Israel did not want that war and did not expect the Arabs to leave—as indeed many did not; those who remained, and their descendants, became Israeli citizens.

Moreover, while World War II and its aftermath created millions of refugees, no other group of them asserted, or was granted, the right to return en masse to the country it left. All other refugee populations were absorbed in the ensuing years by other countries, including the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries where their families had lived for centuries (Israel took in and resettled these refugees). The authors also show that the United Nations resolutions that the Palestinians say establish their claim in reality do no such thing.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees deals with all the world’s refugees except the Palestinians. They alone have a special agency devoted exclusively to them: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). When it was established in late 1949, UNRWA had as its aim the economic, social, and political integration of the Palestinian refugees into the Middle Eastern countries in which they were living. The Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership forced the abandonment of this goal and have used the organization to perpetuate the refugee problem, wielding it as a weapon in the ongoing war against Israel. It serves this purpose because if the demand for return were ever granted, Israel would be flooded with Arabs hostile to its very existence. In that case the Jewish state, with a population of less than nine million, would cease to be viable, as would any state in such circumstances—which is, of course, what the Palestinians want. Having failed to eliminate Jewish sovereignty through military assaults by Arab armies, the Palestinians hope to achieve this end by dissolving Israel from within.

It is not surprising that Israelis, including those, like Schwartz and Wilf, who want a two-state solution to the conflict, will not accept the putative right of return. What is surprising and dismaying is that Western governments, including that of the United States, have failed to recognize the centrality and pernicious character of this demand. How, then, should the Biden Administration approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beginning in 2021?

First, it should follow the lead of the Trump Administration, which declined to continue to fund UNRWA, and seek to abolish that agency. In their concluding chapter, the authors of The War of Return offer some helpful suggestions for how to do so. Second, the new administration should make clear to the Palestinian authorities that the necessary condition for the continuation of an American-sponsored peace process is a clear, unambiguous, publicly and repeatedly stated renunciation of the right of return. By retaining their claim to this right, the Palestinians signal that they continue to pursue the destruction of Israel, in which case no settlement is possible.

Third, the Biden Administration should observe the diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath in medicine: it should do no harm. Persisting in trying to broker an agreement while the Palestinians insist on a right of return does do harm. It encourages the Palestinians to believe, or at least to hope, that the American government does not oppose the elimination of Israel, which in turn gives them reason to continue to seek it. As long as they call for millions of people to be able to make themselves at home in a country that they have never seen, with the vast majority of whose citizens they do not share a common language, common aspirations, or common values, and whom they have been taught their whole lives to despise, nothing American diplomats can do will end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under such circumstances that is precisely what the United States should do about that conflict: nothing.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

United StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyMiddle EastChinaEurope

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