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The most difficult obstacle to a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians long has been presumed to be the status of Jerusalem. That may no longer be true. Not that claims by Palestinians to parts of Jerusalem have become less contentious. But Palestinian leaders have recently pushed to center stage a demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to pre-1967 Israel.
The notion that Israel would permit a large influx of Palestinians is preposterous, for that would threaten its existence as a Jewish state. Yet the recent drumbeat of calls for the "right of return" has begun to draw sympathy beyond the Arab world. Pressing this claim will, of course, sink hopes for a negotiated agreement. But negotiations aside, the more sympathy that this so-called right receives, the greater the risk to Israel's well-being. Allowing Israel to be portrayed as rejecting the rights of a suffering people can only harm Israel's position in the international community. An effective response to this Arab-sponsored campaign is overdue and deserves high priority by supporters of Israel.
The forcefulness of the Palestinian effort has been sudden and unexpected. Couched in claims of justice and human rights, Palestinian advocates refer to a 52-year-old United Nations General Assembly resolution citing a right of Arab refugees to return to their homes. Resolution 194 was passed just after Israel's 1948 War of Independence. During the war, some 750,000 Arabs fled from Jewish-held areas, frequently at the urging of Arab leaders. In subsequent decades, although Arab refugees were kept in camps in neighboring countries, the U.N. resolution's message has largely become an anachronism. It has been bypassed by later realities.
One reality was the remarkable symmetry in the number of Jews, some 850,000, who were forced to emigrate from Arab countries. Another was that the Jewish and Arab population movements were not unique. Much larger shifts were taking place elsewhere. In the late 1940s, 12.5 million people of German ancestry were forced to leave their homes in East European countries where in many cases their families had lived for generations. When India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, 10 million Hindus and Muslims had to relocate. Thus the Arabs represented only a small fraction of the millions of displaced people of that era. But now, a half-century later, it is only for the Arab refugees that time is supposed to have stood still. It is only for them and their descendants, estimated at 3.7 million, that "return" is declared an entitlement. For the 120 million descendants of the others, resettlement was undertaken long ago, and their "right to return" is recognized by no one.
The explosion of calls by Palestinian leaders for the right of return is little more than a year old. Previously, even when Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating in earnest, the issue hardly came up. The recency of the campaign is demonstrated by a leap in media attention to the subject. The New York Times' annual index shows that in the mid-1990s, only two or three Times articles mentioned a Palestinian "right of return" in a year. In 1998 and 1999, the number grew to six and in 2000 rocketed to 36. The Palestinian revival of a nearly moribund claim has received huge publicity.
All this trumpeting has done Israel no good. Like a contagious virus, the Palestinian mantra is spreading, and outside groups have caught the infective message. During the past year, more than 250 organizations signed a petition affirming every Palestinian's "right to return to his or her original home and to absolute restitution of his or her property." Most of the organizations, like affiliates of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, appear to have an Arab connection, but many, such as the National Lawyers Guild, do not.
In December 2000, leaders of the National Council of Churches, including prominent Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist clergymen, joined to urge that any Middle East peace agreement include implementing "the right of return for Palestinian refugees." In the same month, Human Rights Watch declared that Palestinians "in exile" should be able to return "to their country of origin." (Human Rights Watch seems unfazed by the fact that before 1948 the Palestinians were residing in no country as such, but in territory governed by the British and before that the Ottoman Empire.) The December cover story of the Journal of the American Bar Association presented a sympathetic view of Palestinians who believe that "international law guarantees them a right of return to their homelands."
Advocates for the Palestinians now routinely appear on television and in print proclaiming that the right of return is moral, sacred and non-negotiable. Even more ominous, Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee wrote in the Los Angeles Times on January 12 that implementing the Palestinian right of return was "justification for international military intervention."
The response thus far by active supporters of Israel and other people of good will has been inadequate. A concerted campaign to reject the Palestinian ploy is needed. The lead message should be quite simple: The right to exist supersedes the right to return. Israel's existence as a Jewish state could not survive a Palestinian "return." This seems so obvious that some may question the motives of any who fail to acknowledge its ineluctable truth. Still, Palestinian propagandists have been gaining momentum while keeping blurry the destructive consequence of their message. For Israel supporters, the job is to clear the blur and underscore the folly of the idea.
Supporting the right of Arabs to return while ignoring the right of Jews to their nationhood is selective compassion. This is not the first time that people have treated Israel as their moral playground. Such posturing must not be allowed to continue without sustained and vigorous objection.
Mr. Cole is chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
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