Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Yisrael Beytenu) vowed Sunday to promote the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands despite the possible negative political implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Netanyahu, speaking via a pre-recorded message at the international “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference in Jerusalem, said he raises the issue of Jewish refugees wherever he goes.
“The Arab world has neglected Arab refugees for decades and has used them as a battering ram against Israel, while Israel, who was just born as a nation-state, has managed to absorb and resettle the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and turn them into productive citizens,” said the prime minister.
“This government has decided to promote the issue and therefore I raise this issue as well everywhere I go,” he added.
Ayalon, who last week launched an online advocacy campaign entitled “I am a refugee,” told the conference, “The issue of refugees from the Middle East has two sides. Granted, there are Palestinian refugees, but there is a larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”
Ayalon was referring to hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled Middle Eastern and North African countries at the time of Israel’s establishment, most of them heading to Israel. Ayalon’s campaign aims to raise this issue in part as a counter to Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for Arabs who left what is today Israel at around the same time. The Palestinians claim that millions of fourth generation descendants of those Arabs should be allowed to “return” to Israel under a peace agreement — a demand that would demographically end Israel as a Jewish state. Israel argues that Arab refugee descendants should be absorbed in the new “Palestine” under a peace accord, just as Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees.
Ayalon, too, emphasized the Netanyahu administration’s focus on the matter: “The Israeli government has decided to put its full force behind this issue, of which there are political implications, in particular regarding peace negotiations.”
The deputy foreign minister’s nascent campaign has already been the subject of criticism in the Arab world.
In a letter to Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby on Wednesday, Hamas called on the League’s member states to combat Ayalon’s campaign.
The organization claimed in the missive that Jews had never suffered discrimination or persecution in Arab countries, where they resided for centuries. It was the Zionist movement, Hamas argued, which caused Jews to leave — a fact well-documented by “Jewish researchers and officials.”
The letter appealed to the Arab League to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative.
This week’s conference is hosted by the World Jewish Congress, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Senior Citizens.
Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.