A self-declared leftist wages war on the Palestinian ‘right of return’
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InterviewAs a first step, 'UNRWA should be dismantled'

A self-declared leftist wages war on the Palestinian ‘right of return’

In new book, ex-Labor MK Einat Wilf says the refugee ethos is the biggest obstacle to peace. She blames the international community, the Israeli government and the IDF

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former MK Einat Wilf in Jerusalem, May 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former MK Einat Wilf in Jerusalem, May 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former Labor MK Einat Wilf believes the Palestinians are not ready for peace. They are, in fact, miles away from accepting the idea of dividing the land and are still hoping Israel will soon disappear, she asserts in a new book.

And yet, she insists she’s a leftist.

But the peace camp must sober up, she says, and start realizing that peace will not come as long as the Palestinians cling to their demand to “return” to areas now belonging to Israel.

“If you truly want peace, rather than just feel good about wanting peace — and there are a lot of those — and if you actually understand that at the end of the day they [the Palestinians] are the ones with whom we have to live and share the country, you need to be realistic about where they’re coming from,” she told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in a Jerusalem cafe.

“The War of Return,” which she co-authored with former Haaretz journalist Adi Schwartz, provides an in-depth analysis of the Palestinian refugee problem. It notes that immediately after the 1948 War of Independence, Arab leaders were opposed to the return of those who had left their homes in what had become the State of Israel, as this was considered a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty.

But a short while later, Arab leaders changed their strategy and demanded that the “refugees” return to their old homes, Wilf and Schwartz write, citing countless historical documents to prove their point.

The “right of return” was thus formulated clearly “as the continuation of war by other means,” Wilf said.

The War of Independence has never ended, Wilf and Schwartz maintain. Officials at the Palestinian Authority today pay lip service to a two-state solution, but in reality are convinced that masses of “refugees” will soon “return” to their homes in Jaffa and Haifa, ultimately destroying the Jewish state, the book argues.

“The book really comes from the understanding that we were blind — maybe willfully blind — to what they wanted. You can’t make peace with blindness,” Wilf said.

While the issue of refugees is often dismissed as one of the more solvable of the outstanding core issues — Israel could easily admit a “symbolic” number of refugees as a “humanitarian gesture” — Wilf and Schwartz claim that it is actually the hardest nut to crack.

Security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem and the exact delineation of borders are all practical matters to which a solution can be found at the negotiating table. But as long as the Palestinians don’t relinquish the “right of return,” ending the ethos of Palestinians being refugees, peace will remain elusive, they insist.

“This is the core of the conflict,” Wilf said. “Because no other issue reflects more deeply the continued Palestinian, and more broadly Arab, view that Israel is temporary, and that the Jewish presence is not legitimate.”

Palestinians clash with Israeli soldiers in Al-Fawwar refugee camp, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, December 31, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

“The War of Return” was written in Hebrew, but its main target group is foreign diplomats. The international community’s longstanding position on the refugee question — including the support for UNRWA, the UN’s agency for refugees from Palestine — is among the main reasons the Palestinians continue to foster the ethos of return, according to Wilf.

UNRWA, the book contends, perpetuates the notion that the people who left their homes in 1948 and their descendants are refugees, implying that they will “come back” one day.

Palestinians “refugees” are the only ones whose status is handed down to future generations. In 1950, when the agency started, it recognized 750,000 “Palestine refugees,” a number that has grown to over five million.

In this 1948 photo from the UNRWA archive, Palestinian refugees stand outside their tent in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. (AP/UNRWA Photo Archives)

Until 1988, the Palestinians, backed by the Arab world and the Soviet bloc, were very clear about their intentions: they demanded that all refugees return to what is now Israel and vowed to liberate all of Palestine, Wilf said.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and their subsequent need for support from the US, the Palestinians changed their rhetoric and made what they call a painful compromise in forgoing the majority of historical Palestine, now merely demanding a state on the territory Israel captured in 1967.

“But what we show in the book is that never ever have they given up the ‘right of return’,” Wilf said. “When you want to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but the ‘right of return’ is holy and non-negotiable, then the only two states you are rooting for are an Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, and an Arab state to replace Israel.”

Ironically, many people think Israel has destroyed the two-state solution by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank.

“What we’re showing is that the Palestinians have actually never, not for a single moment, accepted the two-state solution. There was never a moment where they said: We’re done, we understand that the other state will never be Arab or Palestinian and that it will belong to the Jewish people.”

Some in the peace camp may agree that the “right of return” is incompatible with the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, but argue that Palestinians are clinging to it merely as a bargaining chip for negotiations, fully aware that no Israeli leader will ever agree to let masses of refugees flood the country.

Einat Wilf during a session of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem in 2010. (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Einat Wilf addressing the Knesset plenary in 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

But Wilf, who served in the Knesset between 2010 and 2013, first with Labor and later with Ehud Barak’s breakaway Independence faction, does not buy this argument.

Coddled by a world that vehemently opposes Israeli settlement expansion but never criticizes the demand for return, the Palestinians really believe that hundreds of thousand of “refugees” will soon flood Israeli cities.

“Push came to shove several times. And again and again, ‘return’ was not something to give up when everything else was acceptable,” she said, referring to previous rounds of Israel-Palestinians peace negotiations.

“They have never agreed to anything. Even if it came very close, they have never agreed to any formulation that will close the door on the possibility of return.”

Does Wilf truly believe the Palestinians stick to the right of return because they see it is their doomsday weapon to destroy Israel? Haven’t the Palestinians realized that Israel will never agree to accept a large number of refugees, certainly not enough to end its character as a Jewish state?

“If the Palestinians truly want a state, they don’t sit on their asses and say: No, we’re going to continue suffering many years of statelessness [rather than] to give up something we already know is not going to happen,” she replied. “This makes zero sense, in any context, if that’s what they really want.”

In the 1940s, the Zionists’ drive for sovereignty led them to accept the UN Partition Plan — which meant the creation of a Jewish state, albeit without Judea and Samaria (the proposed state did not include the West Bank) and without Zion (Jerusalem was meant to be a separate entity).

“But there’s not a single Palestinian leader who says: We want sovereignty and we understand that the price of that sovereignty will be that we will not return,” the lawmaker-turned-author said.

Palestinian children ride bikes near the border with Israel on the outskirts of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, as they take part in a cycling race demanding a ‘Right of Return’ for millions to Israel on March 26, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Some leftists say the Oslo Agreement proved that the Palestinians were ready to compromise and would now accept a state based on the 1967 lines living in peace with Israel. Not this one.

“I find it incredibly hard to believe that a people who changed course in 1988 [with Yasser Arafat’s “Declaration of Independence“], 30 years afterwards doesn’t have a state,” said Wilf, who has a degree in government and fine arts from Harvard and a PhD in political science from Cambridge University. “Because they had several opportunities. If they had really changed course, why not take it?”

Do the Palestinians really believe they can eradicate Israel?

Israel is considered one of the most powerful nations in the world, economically and militarily. The Palestinians can’t really think that they will eradicate Israel, can they?

“Well, that’s the thing. They actually do,” Wilf said resolutely.

Palestinians view the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and discussions about the legitimacy of Zionism as clear indications of Israel’s imminent demise, she posited.

The Romans, the Ottomans, the British — foreign invaders come and go, she said, describing Palestinian thinking about Israel living on borrowed time. The Crusaders lasted only 88 years in Jerusalem, she added, saying Israel had only 17 years left on the Palestinian clock.

“They genuinely believe that,” she insisted.

If a people is constantly strengthened in the belief that they have a “right to return” that is sacrosanct and cannot be renounced, their leaders will never be able to make the compromises needed for peace, she went on.

It’s a book of people who want to get to peace and who realized that technicalities are not the problem. The problem is that the Palestinians have never been prepared for the idea of partition

A national ethos can be changed, but only if leaders prepare their people for it. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 shocked his political base when he uttered the word “occupation.” Two years later, Israel left Gaza.

“It’s not that the words end the process. But they create an environment where actions can take place,” Wilf said.

Peace, she continued, will only come when a Palestinian leader faces his people and tells them: Enough. The Jewish people have a historical right here. It’s not superior to ours, it’s not exclusive. But we’re done denying that they have a historical connection to this land. They will not have everything, and we will not have everything. No, we will not have the homes. We can visit them, but they won’t be ours.

“You never heard that speech,” she lamented.

That speech, if it is ever given, won’t mean that peace negotiations are over, she went on. “But at least then you know the Palestinians have reasonable expectations.”

So far, no Palestinian leader has said or written or anything to indicate that they are ready to relinquish their refugee ethos.

“That’s why I said this is a book written by left-wingers. It’s a book of people who want to get to peace and who realized that technicalities are not the problem. The problem is that the Palestinians have never been prepared — not even for a moment — for the idea of partition.”

And yet, as opposed to Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” her 300-page book is not addressed at the Palestinians.

Rather, it is geared to the international community, which Wilf accuses of perpetuating the Palestinian narrative of being refugees who have a legitimate demand of “return.” (Wilf and Schwartz are currently looking for a publisher for the English translation of the book, by journalist Eylon A. Levy.)

Journalist Adi Schwartz and former MK Einat Wilf (right) in Jerusalem, May 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The Palestinians will dream of Jaffa. You will never get into their heads and take that away — just as nothing will ever make the Jews stop longing for Judea,” she said.

“But just as the international community makes it clear on a daily basis that the Jews cannot have Judea, it should start saying now that the Palestinians will not have a state ranging from the river to the sea.”

The world, which condemns every single announcement of new housing units in the West Bank, never asks the Palestinians to relinquish their demand for return, Wilf charged. “You literally have no problem telling the Jews that they won’t have it all. Why not tell the Palestinians?”

But doesn’t it go without saying that the Palestinians won’t have everything? After all, no one in the international community (except Iran) today disputes that the Western side of the 1967 line belongs to Israel?

Once again, Wilf disagreed.

“When Western governments fund a UN agency with more than a billion dollars every year, feeding the delusion of return, it doesn’t go without saying.”

In fact, Wilf believes the Palestinians interpret the West’s support for UNRWA as support for the right of return. And they are right to do, she insisted: “When 70 percent of people who live in Gaza believe that they are refugees, and are stamped by the UN as such, you cannot fault them for thinking that their right of return is internationally sanctioned.”

Foreign diplomats believe that UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which in 1948 said that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” unambiguously affirms the Palestinians’ right of return.

It doesn’t, Wilf and Schwartz argue at great length in their book.

If the international community were fair it would treat Israeli settlements and Palestinian demands of return in exactly the same manner, Wilf submitted. “Because both of them reflect the maximalist vision. Both of them reflect the idea that a specific people should be in every single inch.”

But the world only cries foul when Israel builds settlements, at the same time as it actively encourages the Palestinian refugee ethos by supporting UNRWA, she said.

Diplomats would counter such arguments by saying that settlement expansion creates facts on the ground that physically impede the implementation of a two-state solution, while the demand of return is intangible.

Wilf doesn’t buy it.

“I believe that the idea of return is more powerful than any house built in the settlements. Because houses are easily demolished,” she offered.

“Israel builds the houses and then demolishes them. Granted, I think it’s stupid to build them in the first place. But the idea [of return] is almost unmovable. The actions taken because of the idea are dramatic. Because of this idea the Palestinians repeatedly reject compromise.”

It is the lingering refugee ethos that causes Palestinians to consider Gaza a temporary place of residence, one they will leave when they are allowed to “return” to Haifa, Jaffa and Beersheba.

“The people dying at the fences [at the Gaza border] demanding return are the consequence of the people who refuse to say that the limit of their political ambition is at the 1967 border,” according to Wilf.

A Palestinian uses a slingshot to throw back a tear gas canister at Israeli forces during clashes along the border east of Gaza City on July 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

“I’m not in favor of building houses [in the settlements]. But Israel has demonstrated that it can uproot the houses. The Palestinians are yet to show that they take one refugee off the roster.”

In her frequent meetings with foreign diplomats, Wilf argues that the refugee issue is “more destructive to peace than the settlements ever were and ever will be,” she said.

“How are we going to get to partition and compromise if the Palestinians seriously think — and they seriously think — that Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea?”

So what should be done?

As a first step, “UNRWA should be dismantled,” Wilf said. The services it provides, mainly in the fields of health care and education, should be transferred to other countries, agencies or providers “that do not tie the provision of the service to the perpetuation of the idea of being a refugee and the illusion of return.”

UNRWA, by virtue of its very mandate, perpetuates the idea that the Palestinians are refugees from Palestine, she said.

“So what we’re saying is: provide the services differently so that the facade is taken away. And then you’re just left with this crazy idea that a middle-class lawyer who was born in Ramallah and lives in Ramallah is a refugee from Palestine. Then you really expose it as the nonsensical notion that it is.”

Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Once the letters “UN” are removed from the refugee ethos, the Palestinians will sooner or later have to realize that the world does not share this view.

“Change takes place when you begin to realize your true power. Right now, they have no sense of their true power because they think that the world is with them,” she said.

UNRWA’s top lobbyist? The Israeli government

Leading Israeli politicians rarely have a good word for UNRWA, but it is no secret that the defense establishment is very much in favor of the agency’s survival, arguing that its services are necessary to prevent a humanitarian disaster that would ultimately end in violence against Israel.

Indeed, Israel is “the number one lobbyist for this organization,” Wilf charged, arguing that both the army and the political leadership are satisfied with the status quo.

One might think that UNRWA and the IDF have a secret treaty to support each other, she joked.

“The military doesn’t care about five years from now. It says, right now UNRWA doesn’t fight me. What it doesn’t understand is that UNRWA is making sure that the Palestinians will have recruits forever to fight Israel,” she said.

“My argument is that militaries don’t understand narratives. Militaries don’t understand that consciousness and words determine action.”

Given her views, foreign diplomats are surprised to hear that Wilf considers herself a leftist, she said.

“I say to them, it’s seriously very simple. East of the Green Line: not us. West of the Green Line: not them.”

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