Contextual Content

Palestinian right of return

Aijaz Ahmad: "There is an incredibly long list of Palestinian leaders who, over the last 25, 30 years have said that you have to make a distinction between the principle of the right of return and its actual implementation. You have to recognize it in principle, that these properties belong to us, we are refugees, and so on and so forth, and then what is to be done about it. And I think if negotiations are held in good faith, there are all kinds of possibilities."

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome back to the next segment in our series of interviews asking the question, what would a rational American foreign policy look like? We’re discussing the Middle East with Aijaz Ahmad. Aijaz, in the last part of the interviews, we left off with the question of what would an Israeli-Palestinian settlement look like, solution look like. And the first question comes to the security for both states, and certainly some Arab states, for example Iran—not an Arab state but Middle Eastern state—argue that the state of Israel shouldn’t be recognized at all, shouldn’t exist. What do you make of that argument?

AIJAZ AHMAD: That is a passing historical phase, Paul. A number of Arab states used to take that position. They no longer do. It’s an extremist position of a certain kind. But I think that’s a passing phase. The same Irani state, by the way, has said that the Palestinian struggle is the business of the Palestinians, and Iran is not going to fight the war for Palestinian rights, and anything that is acceptable to Palestine, Palestinians, would be acceptable to Iran.

JAY: But you do get that position from Hamas as well, at least as an official position, they don’t want to recognize the right to exist of the state of Israel.

AHMAD: Ultimately, their position is that if you don’t recognize our right to have a state, you can’t ask us to recognize your state. But they have also said that it’ll give us a solution that by referendum the majority of Palestinians accept, it’ll be acceptable to us, which in effect means recognition of Israel.

JAY: It comes down to that.

AHMAD: Yeah.

JAY: But the counterargument to this coming from sections of the left, sections of the Middle East, Arab world, is that the origin of the state of Israel displaced Palestinians and thus isn’t legitimate. What’s the counterargument to that?

AHMAD: Well, there are two different matters here, Paul. One is that in the long historical sense, boundaries of most states were obtained by force, and by that argument the United States has no right to exist as a state because of what happened 200 years ago. So, you know, that’s one sort of thing. The other is a more interesting question, which is that there was a UN resolution which allotted a certain amount of territory to Israel. But in the 1948 war, Israel systematically exceeded that territory, and that became the state of Israel. Then, since ’67, it has occupied the rest of the historic land of Palestine, and Israel is yet to declare its final frontiers. So there is one credible argument, which is that unless Israel declares where its frontiers are, what is it that we are being asked to recognize? So that, I think, there is gives some credibility to that. But I think that is essentially an academic issue. We know what is to be recognized in terms of Israel. But the most important point that I would make is not so much the legitimacy of the state but the obligation of that state to address the issues affecting the victims of that war of 1948 and ’67.

JAY: And out of that comes one of the thorniest questions, which is the right of return. Palestinians in negotiations for decades have said right of return is a core principle of any final settlement with Israel. A counterargument to that is that if Israel’s going to maintain its quote-unquote "character" as a Jewish state, and the demographic mix in Israel now, and what’s happened to property in Israel now, that right of return simply doesn’t work. So, again, if you were advising the next American president, how does one get past this?

AHMAD: You see, there is an incredibly long list of Palestinian leaders who, over the last 25, 30 years have said that you have to make a distinction between the principle of the right of return and its actual implementation. You have to recognize it in principle, that these properties belong to us, we are refugees, and so on and so forth, and then what is to be done about it. And I think if negotiations are held in good faith, there are all kinds of possibilities.

JAY: Which would include compensation, I suppose.

AHMAD: Which would include compensation, and compensation may come partly from Israel and partly perhaps by an international fund. You may reasonably ask individual Israelis who have manifestly gained from their acquiring that property to contribute to that fund, and so on. There could be a question of part of the settlement being that Palestinians who are living in various states be given a citizenship of those states.

JAY: Now, the solution, when one goes through it, a rational solution seems rather obvious. But negotiations don’t ever seem to get anywhere, partly to do with the interests of the elites on all sides of this equation, partly to do with American policy, and partly to do with fanaticism on all parts of the equation. How does one get past this?

AHMAD: There is indeed fanaticism on the part of the Palestinians as well, some Palestinians. But as I said, you know, there is a long list of Palestinian leaders who have said that once you recognize the principle, we can talk about the settlement of various kinds. And the fact of the matter is that much of the diaspora in the world would rather get citizenship of the countries where they have lived for 60 years than go looking for some home in Palestine, in Israel. So, you know, practically—.

JAY: Palestinians lingering in refugee camps might very well like to [inaudible].

AHMAD: That is, for example, what I had in mind, that a very separate front of compensation can be given to them, and they can be given full citizenship rights. Either there or a number of western countries can give a quota and say, x-number of Palestinians we will take as refugee or whatever, we’ll give them citizenship in our societies, and so on and so forth, as people have done from other war-torn areas. There are various kinds of settlements that are possible. The Israelis—Israeli fanaticism comes from the fact that recognizing that, you would have to rewrite the history of 1948, which is the history of national liberation. You cannot say then that there were so many hundreds of thousands of victims to whom we’ll need to compensate. So you will have to change the very self-image. You will have to start teaching a very different history inside Israel.

JAY: In the next segment let’s discuss what a new Palestinian state might look like. And there’s a lot of conversation about a viable Palestinian state. Well, what would make that viable? Please join us for the next segment in our series of interviews.