The issue of the Palestinian refugee problem has again risen to the forefront of public interest and debate concerning finding a just and lasting resolution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, particularly in light of the Saudi Arabian initiative which was adopted on March 28, 2002, by the summit meeting of the Council of the League of Arab States at its 14th Ordinary Session in Beirut. This proposal, which is now official Arab League policy, provided a formulation in paragraph 2.b, for; "The achievement of a just solution to the Palestine refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194". It also included the wording in paragraph 3.a. "Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region". Israel Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has already stated that these proposals as a whole are worthy of serious consideration and provide a basis for negotiations to end the conflict.

Rejecting the Right of Return

There have been many Palestinians and some Israelis who have criticized the newspaper advert1 by Amos Oz and other Israeli left-wing and peace camp writers and intellectuals who totally rejected the idea of the "Right of Return". In that advert addressed to "The Palestinian Leadership," over 30 leading Israeli peace activists, intellectuals and politicians announced publicly that "we shall never be able to agree to the return of the refugees to within the borders of Israel, for the meaning of such a return would be the elimination of the State of Israel". While supporting family reunions, these Israeli peace camp leaders, who have for 30 years supported "a two-state solution" and "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination", wrote that a "massive return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish people".
Palestinians claim that Oz and the Israeli peace camp do not appreciate the depth of Palestinian feelings, commitment and need on this issue. Those critics miss the point of the succinct statement made by the best minds and most articulate and politically wise spokesmen of the Israel peace camp-the main, or perhaps the only remaining constituency for peace in Israel.
Those writers and intellectuals know that no government in Israel, even a totally peace-oriented government can accept the fulfillment of the "Right of Return" or any of its variants which would involve one way or another opening the gates of Israel to millions or even hundreds of thousand of Palestinian refugees. If such a commitment were included in a peace agreement brought before the Israeli public, in a plebiscite, it would have no chance of passing, despite the fact that the majority of the Israeli public are still ready for major and meaningful compromises for peace leading to the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed his support for the establishment of a Palestinian State in a speech made in September 2001.
The overwhelming majority of Israelis from left to right perceive the "Right of Return" of millions or even hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees as a direct existential threat to the survival of Israel as the Jewish homeland. This is even more true today, as a result of the vitriolic hate campaign against all Israelis, not just settlers, spewed forth by official Palestinian Authority spokesmen, the press, electronic media and in schools, as well as the acts of terrorism against innocent civilians in Israel including women, teenagers, school children and infants.
Despite all this, most of the Israeli public still accepts the idea of a two state solution involving the creation of a Palestinian State, but cannot accept the Palestinian demand that they have the right to take over Israel as well by inundating it with Palestinian refugees.

Retelling the Historical Narrative

In the last words of the book The Palestinian Exodus 1948-19882, Rashid Khalidi writes; "Working from the South African model, it is clear that we need truth, justice and, finally, reconciliation. We need truth so that the harm done in 1948 can be acknowledged by all concerned, which means facing history honestly, acceptance of responsibility by those responsible or their successors, and solemn atonement for what was done 50 years ago. We need truth also in order to clarify the limits of what can be done to right that injustice without causing further harm. Once these have been established, it should be possible to work toward attainable justice and therefore toward reconciliation. This is essential because our ultimate objective should be to end this conflict for good, which can only come from true reconciliation, based on truth and justice".

Responsibility and Remorse

In depth, well documented, historical studies by Dr Benny Morris3 of Israel, indicate that Israel is not free of partial responsibility for the problems of the Palestinian displaced persons and refugees. Local army commanders and irregulars expelled and deported Palestinians in some cases and the Government of Israel refused to accept the return of most of the Palestinian displaced persons and refugees after the war since they were viewed by Israel as a hostile enemy people who tried to conquer and annihilate Israel at its very inception.
In light of the above analysis I have come to the conclusion that nevertheless, Israel can and should state clearly and openly its sorrow, deep remorse and regrets for its part, minor though it was, in the terrible tragedy that the befell the Palestinian refugees as a result of the 1948 war and the years of severe suffering and deprivations that they have gone through ever since. Ways must be found for the final resettlement of those refugees, still in camps, in permanent homes and just compensation for all refugees for their losses and suffering. Israel should carry its share and participate actively in promoting that effort.
The Palestinian leadership shares a heavy responsibility as well, since it too insisted that the refugees remain in the overcrowded and unsanitary camps and rejected every offer of resettlement. They preferred to use the suffering of refugees as leverage in their political negotiations. They never have accepted their heavy responsibility for bringing upon themselves and the Palestinian people the "Nakba", or prepared themselves or the refugees for a realistic acceptance of the reality that there never can be a "return" in the practical, physical sense of the term. Just the opposite, over the years they continuously fanned the flames.
Today the only honest and just solution is for there to be two states, side by side, living in peace, mutual respect and cooperating with each other in all areas. The Palestinian State must be the dedicated Palestinian homeland to which its refugees can return and the State of Israel must remain the dedicated Jewish homeland to which Jewish refugees can return. Israel must be prepared to absorb at least an additional million refugees who may be compelled to leave the former Soviet Union and other countries because of oppression, discrimination and anti-Semitism. Israel is their only homeland, their only hope for refuge.
The Arab host countries can and must now play a major role in the resettlement and rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees, together with the nations of the world who have made generous humane offers to help. Israel also can and should reach an agreement with the Palestinian leadership on the step-wise return of limited numbers of refugees based on humanitarian and family unification considerations.
The time has come to end the armed struggle between Palestinians and Israelis and create a legitimate and viable Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza within the 1967 borders, with some mutually agreed modifications. This is the solution that the Palestinians themselves missed out on by their inability to accept the historic two state compromise of partition in 1948 sanctioned by the international legitimacy of the decision of the UN. It is in that Palestinian State that the refugees can finally find a home if they so choose. It is important to note that a distinguished Palestinian leader and intellectual, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University and Chairman Yassar Arafat's official representative in Jerusalem said in a published interview5 that the Palestinian refugees should be resettled in the future Palestinian State, and "... not in a way that would undermine the existence of the State of Israel as a predominately Jewish State ... Otherwise what does a two-state solution mean?" The Arab League's Beirut proposal of March 2002, based on the Saudi Arabian initiative, also calls for a solution of the Palestinian refugee problem based on a "just solution ... agreed upon" between the sides with no reference to the "Right of Return".

Lessons from the Past

The time has come to fulfill the words of Professor Khalidi and face history honestly and accept responsibility, since we need truth in order to clarify the limit of what can be done to right the injustices of the past without causing further harm. It will take some time and a painful reassessment for both sides to accept this, but in my mind the only historically just and moral way out of this dilemma is a joint Palestinian-Israeli statement of shared remorse and regret for the tragedy of the Palestinian displaced persons and refugees with a public declaration of acceptance of shared responsibility for the transgressions of the past. In accepting this there must be recognition that the only just and realistic solution today is the creation of an independent Palestinian State, which will be the dedicated homeland of the Palestinian people living side by side in peace with the State of Israel, the dedicated homeland of the Jewish people. There must be a clear public acceptance of the reality that it is now impossible to turn back the hands of the clock of history and that there can be no "return".
In light of the tragic deterioration in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the escalating armed violence, ruthless and inhumane terrorist acts aimed purposely against innocent civilians and the violent response to such acts, there is good reason to believe there will be renewed forceful international initiatives to bring pressure to bear on both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to end the futile armed struggle and bloodshed and finally resolve the conflicts between our two peoples in the spirit of realistic, pragmatic and painful compromises on both sides. Hopefully the day will come, in the not too distant future when the Palestinians will once again have an opportunity to negotiate a full and final peace agreement with Israel. The Saudi Arabian/Arab League initiative coupled with the Clinton bridging formulations at Taba may very well provide just such a basis for renewed negotiations for achieving a just and lasting peace. However, negotiations will have no chance of a fair start if the Palestinians insist on the "Right of Return" as a precondition. If they do so, I fear, they will bring upon themselves another tragedy as a result of their inability to realize that the time has come to accept in the name of all Palestinians, a realistic concluding solution to the refugee question that will not negate the principle of the two state solution: Israel as the dedicated Jewish homeland and a Palestinian State as the dedicated Palestinian homeland, living side by side, in peace.

1. Ha'aretz-January 2, 2001þ
2.The Palestinian Exodus 1948-1988 edited by G. Karmi & E. Cotran, Ithaca Press. 1999.
3.Morris, B. (1988) The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, Cambridge Press
4. Karsh, E. (2001) "The Palestinians and the Right of Return" Commentary, 111:25-31,
5. Nusseibeh, S. 2001, interview by Dan Perry of the Associated Press, reported on in The Washington Times, October 24, 2001