Analysis from Israel

Ali Jarbawi, a former Palestinian Authority minister, regurgitated several standard Palestinian talking points in a New York Times op-ed yesterday. Jonathan Tobin has already ably dissected most of them, but I’d like to focus on one he didn’t address: Jarbawi’s claim that the “right of return” is “guaranteed to refugees by international law.” Unfortunately for Jarbawi, this is a bad time to try to make that particular claim, because two European Union members, Spain and Portugal, are currently decisively refuting it.

Both countries recently announced plans to offer citizenship to descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews they expelled 500 years ago. At first glance, this might seem as if they had recognized a “right of return” – were it not for the fact that they’ve simultaneously refused to offer citizenship to descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Muslims expelled at about the same time.

This has infuriated Muslim organizations, which are demanding equal treatment for their co-religionists. And if, as Palestinians claim, “return” were indeed a right guaranteed to all descendants of refugees in perpetuity, regardless of circumstances, these organizations would be justified. But in reality, it’s no such thing. And the arguments raised against it in Spain and Portugal apply to the Israeli-Palestinian case as well.

First, according to the legislator who drafted Portugal’s law of return, the circumstances of the Jewish and Muslim expulsions were completely different. “Persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict,” Jose Ribeiro e Castro said. ”There’s no basis for comparison.”

That, of course, is equally true of Palestinian refugees: Far from being the victims of persecution, they fled and/or were expelled during a bloody conflict in which five Arab armies, aided by large contingents of local Palestinian irregulars, invaded the newborn state of Israel and tried to eradicate it. Thus Israel owes no moral debt to the refugees comparable to that of Spain and Portugal to their Jews.

Second, as noted by Egyptian-Belgian journalist Khaled Diab, there’s the demographic issue: While “only a few thousand” Jews are considered likely to apply for Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, “unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims” might be eligible. And that creates a real problem:

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilizations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

That, of course, is far more true of tiny Israel, with only 8 million people, compared to Spain’s 47 million. If you believe UNRWA’s figures, the original 700,000 Palestinian refugees now have 5 million descendants. If substantial numbers of them relocated to Israel – and given the choice, they probably would, since Israel offers a better economy and more civil rights than the Arab countries where most now live – that could convert Israel’s Jewish majority into an Arab one. In short, it wouldn’t just risk “civil strife”; it would completely eradicate the Jewish state.

To be clear, nobody thinks Spain and Portugal have a legal obligation to offer citizenship even to descendants of their Jewish refugees: There is no such obligation under international law. But to the extent that one might posit a moral obligation, the Spanish and Portuguese cases clearly show that this obligation applies only to victims of persecution, not to those of armed conflict – and only if the demographic consequences won’t endanger the recipient country.

So the next time you hear someone claim Palestinians have a “right of return,” just refer them to Spain and Portugal for a brief lesson in what that “right” really means: exactly nothing.

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Finally, a peace plan that takes Resolution 242 seriously

Ever since the Trump administration published its Mideast peace plan, critics have vociferously claimed that it “violates U.N. resolutions” and “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” guiding peacemaking since 1967. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the first plan that actually relates seriously to the document every plan cites as the basis for those parameters: U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

The resolution was adopted in November 1967, five months after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, eastern Jerusalem and Sinai Peninsula in the Six-Day War. But contrary to popular belief, it was carefully crafted to let Israel keep some of this territory by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”

As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British ambassador to the United Nations who drafted the resolution, explained, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”

The reason was that, in the resolution’s own words, a “just and lasting peace” would require “secure and recognized boundaries” for all states in the region. But the 1967 lines (aka the 1949 armistice lines) did not and could not provide secure boundaries for Israel. As Goldberg explained, the resolution called for “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces” precisely because “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” And since Israel had captured these territories in a defensive rather than offensive war, the drafters considered such territorial changes fully compatible with the resolution’s preamble “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

But then, having successfully defeated the Arab/Soviet demand that Israel be required to cede “all the territories,” America abandoned its hard-won achievement just two years later, when it proposed the Rogers Plan. That plan called for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with only minor adjustments (since nobody back then envisioned a Palestinian state, the West Bank would have returned to Jordan, even though Jordan had illegally occupied it in 1948).

This formula made a mockery of Resolution 242 because it failed to provide Israel with “secure boundaries.” Yet almost every subsequent proposal retained the idea of the 1967 lines with minor adjustments, even as all of them continued paying lip service to 242.

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