A Chinese news agency is reporting that Secretary of State John Kerry has offered one of his many "bridging proposals" on the right of return of Palestinian refugees, in his effort to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks along. These talks appear to be going nowhere on their own when Palestinians and Israelis are left to deal with each other directly, but also nowhere with Kerry in the middle, as he seems to be regularly, now that his most recent diplomatic "breakthrough," the Iranian nuclear deal, remains in limbo, near two months on from the much ballyhooed November signing in Geneva.
The six-month interim period established in the Geneva agreement, during which Iran agrees to freeze some of its nuclear activity, and Western nations relax some of their sanctions, has not yet commenced, and no one is quite sure at this point what has been agreed to. In any case, Iran continues to proclaim the things they intend to do during the interim phase, such as advanced centrifuge development insuring that the new centrifuges can be quickly installed and begin spinning if the interim agreement is not extended and talks break down at some point short of a final agreement, as they seem likely to do.
The report on the refugee proposal is significant since this is not a minor issue for the Palestinians. Their narrative of the Palestinian Nakba argues that European imperialists established Israel due to guilt over the Holocaust and made the Palestinians pay the price with their expulsion in large numbers during the 1948 war, thereby creating the refugee situation. Of course, the Zionist movement preceded the Holocaust by decades, and first won European support after World War I. The Palestinian narrative places the Palestinians in their now established role of victims, ignoring the many opportunities they had and rejected over the last 75 years to create a state of their own.
It also gives no agency to how Palestinians have dealt with refugee matters themselves, or how neighboring Arab countries have handled the issue since 1948. In both cases, the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors have chosen to make the refugees and their far more numerous descendants, now three generations on, cling to a fantasy of return to a land where almost none of them ever lived. It is why so many Palestinians live a life of squalor in U.N. Relief and Works Agency camps in various countries, infused with political indoctrination about destroying Israel and returning to their homes. Alone among the refugee populations of the world (well over 50 million since World War II), the Palestinian refugees are permanent, and avoid (if not fight) resettlement. Resettlement would mean accepting that they are not going back (or for the first time) to Israel and need to get on with their lives. This would mean a sort of tacit acceptance of Israel's existence. Three and in some cases four generations of Palestinians have sacrificed their futures or had them sacrificed absent their own choosing, so this dream of the elimination of Israel can remain alive.
Most estimates place the number of Arab refugees from the 1948 war at between 600,000 and 700,000, a number that is dwarfed by the greater number of Jews who were uprooted and driven out after centuries of living in various Arab countries. Over two-thirds of the Jews who were forced out arrived in Israel, and within a fairly short time, were no longer in camps or temporary housing, but on their way to new lives in a new country. The Jews who arrived in Israel after the 1948 war, including displaced persons from Europe and those expelled by the Arab countries, doubled the size of the Jewish population in Israel in a few years. The Arab refugees, on the other hand, were a blip on the populations of the Arab countries, other than Jordan.
The Arabs who left their homes during the war, arrived in other Arab lands nearby, whether the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, or Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where the same language was spoken and the same religion was practiced. While some of the refugees were encouraged to leave by the Zionists during the fighting, others left on their own so as to be out of the war zone, some left before the war even started, and others left their homes with the active encouragement of Arab armies (to get out of the way so the Arabs could finish off the Jews in the fighting) and even some political leaders among the Palestinian population.
In fact, there was no distinct nationality in Palestine itself, as the Arab refugees were indistinguishable from their neighbors, except for how they became pawns in the endless battle to delegitimize and undermine Israel. As revealed in Joan Peters' exhaustive work, "From Time Immemorial," many of the Arabs who resided in Palestine at the time of the 1948 war had been recent arrivals, lured to Palestine from other Arab lands by the improving standard of living that arrived with the Zionists.
The demand for a right of return for all refugees, meaning every original refugee and all descendants of refugees, is another unique feature in the way Palestinian refugees are treated by international organizations, in that other refugee populations around the world have only included those who became refugees themselves, and future generations were never considered refugees as well. This is why the number of Palestinian refugees, which at one time was in the 600,000 to 700,000 range, now includes over 5 million registered refugees, regardless of whether they live in refugee camps. And of course, Palestinian have their own refugee agency, while all the rest of the world's refugees are handled by a separate agency.
Into this twisted narrative of an ever-soaring refugee population, Kerry seems to have pulled a number out of the air for refugees who should be allowed back into Israel -- 80,000. This number almost certainly exceeds the number of living refugees from the 1948 war. The Chinese report suggested that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now serving in the 10th year of his four-year term in office (more evidence of Palestinian number inflation), has supposedly countered Kerry's offer with one of his own, demanding that 200,000 Palestinians be allowed back into Israel. Of course this demand is for Palestinians to enter Israel after a supposed peace deal is struck, and many Palestinians are counting on such a deal only deferring the next stage in their war against Israel. If a peace deal weakens Israel strategically (how could it not?), many Palestinians, including leaders of the various political and terror groups, are counting on a future defeat or collapse of Israel, leading at some future date to a universal right of return for Palestinians, all of whom at that point would have no residential linkage whatsoever to the land of Israel itself.
Israeli leaders were quick to argue that there would be no recognition of a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel itself in any peace agreement, but only to a new Palestinian state. But with Kerry and Abbas negotiating a range for the number of refugees allowed back in, it appears that Israel was not consulted, or was merely ignored by the secretary of state, and will appear to be "intransigent," to use a favored New York Times descriptor, if it does not enter the bidding.
The Israelis for their part have demanded that Palestinians accept that Israel is the Jewish state (with non-Jews of course representing a substantial minority population within the country). With current high and growing Jewish birth rates, and declining Israeli Arab birth rates, the fact of a heavy Jewish majority will not disappear in future generations, as once forewarned by some analysts. But it is not empirical evidence that is at issue with the total Palestinian rejection of the concept. It is much more that the concept is in conflict with their own narrative, which claims that except for the (supposed) expulsion of the refugees, Arabs would now be dominant within the country, and so they cannot concede Israel's permanence and the Jewish majority's permanence in Israel without ignoring their own narrative. This would be an abandonment of the refugees. Of course, the Palestinians also demand that no Jewish Israelis at all may live in the new Palestinian state.
Kerry has walked onto one of the many land mines in this conflict with his offer, if the story is even real. Refugees are not a split-the-difference issue and such leaks of bridging proposals serve no purpose if progress on difficult issues is what one or both sides really want. Sixty-five years after a war they started and lost, the few remaining Palestinians who are among the original refugee population need to move on. The fake refugees who are their descendants need to give up their delusions of victimhood. Israel is not their land.