Palestinian refugees are Israel’s Achilles heel
What do you get when a disillusioned Israeli politician from the political “Left” links up with a veteran Israeli journalist, also from the political “Left,” to take on the issue of Palestinian refugees, a key element for Middle East peace? Answer: Israeli Hasbara (public diplomacy propaganda) on steroids, with about one-third more words than necessary.
This was my immediate reaction while reading the newly released book The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf. I try to not judge a book by its cover, but its back cover is a different story. Having now read the book, I can confidently claim that this book can be judged by its three back cover endorsements.
The first endorsement is by Benjamin Shapiro, an American conservative political commentator and former Breitbart News editor who penned as far back as in 2003 that “Here is the bottom line: If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution.” (Transfer is not a dirty word, Townhall.com).
The second is by Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and journalist who, in his writings, excels in camouflaging Israel’s military occupation and his status as a settler living in an illegal settlement in Jerusalem.
The third endorsement comes from none other than Benny Morris. In the article “Israeli historian Benny Morris doubles down on his advocacy for ethnic cleansing,” Jonathan Ofir writes that “the Israeli historian who has documented Israeli-Palestinian history so meticulously, is again bemoaning that a full ethnic cleansing was not completed in 1948.” (Mondoweiss, Jan. 18, 2019).
The book is a long-winded frontal attack on Palestinian refugees and reads more as a commissioned assignment from the Hasbara-hub called the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs rather than a truly deep analysis of the issue of Palestinian refugees. If one removes the one-third of the book that is repetitive and honking the state horn, you are left with a third of extremely selective references and statements that attempt to build a seemingly non-controversial case against Palestinian refugees right to return and the international agency overseeing them. The last third comprises of rather useful facts and figures, along with an extensive bibliography that encompasses a chunk of the body of knowledge on the subject matter.
What is missing from the book is as important as what is in it. The missing third is all the other references that Palestinians’ Right of Return is based on, above and beyond the single one, UN General Assembly 194, that the authors pin their entire argument around. More on this below.
The book was originally written in Hebrew. The English publisher’s website notes that the book was a “runaway bestseller in Israel, the first English translation of The War of Return is certain to spark lively debate throughout America and abroad.” I am not sure how many sparks it will produce, but I am happy that it allows us to put Palestinian refugees, and how they became refugees, in the spotlight again.
The book dwells on the assumption that Israel accepted the UN Partition Plan of 1947, General Assembly Resolution 181, and the Arabs did not. So now, in their analysis, anything goes by Israel, and Palestinians need to just get over it. The authors use their agenda-based wordsmithing by writing that “…partition would have meant that out of the 11.5 million square kilometers encompassed by Arab states at the time, many of which were also set in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, some fifteen thousand square kilometers (one one-thousandth) would be allocated to the Jewish people…”.
How convenient it must be to compare apples with oranges, lumping all Arab states in one bucket, and comparing it to a single intended “state” that became Israel.
There is no space here to do justice to why Arabs rightly said “No” in 1947 but an excellent write up on the issue may be found here by the American researcher Natasha Gill, The Original “No”: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters (Middle East Policy Council).
Whereas the authors make a major deal about Arab rejection of General Assembly Resolution 181, treating it as a sacred text, they dismiss another General Assembly Resolution, 194, that deals with the Right of Return, making the case that it was merely a General Assembly Resolution that was non-binding. On one page, a General Assembly resolution is a justification for aggression and on another, it has zero relevance because it is a General Assembly resolution.
The co-authors claim to have discovered the silver bullet to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency created in December 1949 to support the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees, and make it clear to the Palestinians, once and for all, that a return of refugees to Israel (whatever the boundaries the authors imply) will never happen.
From the outset, it is already clear that the authors have a very political agenda.
Adi Schwartz is a Tel Aviv-based independent freelance journalist with over a decade of experience in leading Israeli and international media outlets. He is a former staff writer for Israeli newspaper Haaretz and worked for Israel Hayom and is now finishing his doctorate in conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University.
Einat Wilf is a Jerusalem-born, Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party (2010–2011) and Independence Party (2011–2013). She completed her conscription as an Intelligence Officer in the infamous Unit 8200 with the rank of Lieutenant. She then went to Harvard University, receiving a BA in government and fine arts, before earning an MBA from INSEAD in France, and subsequently a Ph.D. in political science at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. She served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and was a strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company. She wrote in an article titled “Zionism: The Only Way Forward” (The Daily Beast, July 13, 2017) that “I am a Zionist because I am an atheist and a Jew.”