The War of Return, How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace
Written by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf
Translated into English by Eylon Levi
English translation published in 2020 by St. Martin’s Publishing Group, New York, NY
By DAVID ROYTENBERG
Why doesn’t Israel have peace? The War of Return, written by two veterans of the failed Oslo peace process, offers an unorthodox answer. It is an important book about a question constantly discussed in the media, in international fora, in universities and around many Jewish dinner tables. Acrimony over this question bedevils North American Jewish communities.
The book identifies a fundamental problem which has thwarted all progress toward peace and provides a prescription for beginning to address it.
“The Palestinian demand to ‘return’ to what became the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 stands as a testament to the Palestinian rejection of the legitimacy of a state for the Jews in any part of their ancestral homeland,” the authors, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, write. “Practically nothing could be understood about the Palestinian position in the peace process and the conflict itself – and no effective steps could be taken towards its resolution – without delving deeply into this issue.”
In short, the belief in a Palestinian “right of return” is the key obstacle to resolving the conflict.
To make their case, the authors look at the 1948 war, in which Palestinian Arabs and the neighbouring states tried to prevent the establishment of Israel by force of arms. They look at the aftermath of the war, in which 750,000 Arabs lost their homes, and how the Palestinian refugees were treated by the international community and by their countries of refuge.
The authors compare the Palestinians with a similar group who lost their homes as a result of war, the 10 million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia and the former German territories annexed to Poland. They compare a successful strategy, which solved the German refugee problem, with the failed strategy which perpetuated and exacerbated the Palestinian refugee problem.
This failure is the story of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), created as a temporary agency to resolve the refugee problem, and modeled on similar agencies that resolved refugee problems in other parts of the world.
Unlike other temporary refugee rehabilitation agencies, UNRWA was systematically prevented from fulfilling its mandate by the Arab countries where it operated. In 10 years almost no Palestinian refugee was resettled. This was part of a strategy to perpetuate the 1948 conflict by other means. Western nations shied away from taking a firm stand for fear of alienating the governments of the Arab states.
After 10 years of futility, UNRWA ceased even to pretend to fulfil its mandate, and instead turned to providing health and educational services to registered Palestinian refugees. Moreover, UNRWA extended refugee status to the children of Palestinian refugees, ensuring that rather than solving the refugee problem, it would only grow larger.
In throwing in the towel on UNRWA’s mandate while continuing to fund it, the western powers convinced themselves that funding UNRWA and providing social support to the growing number of Palestinian refugees was better than winding it up and leaving them to be supported by the countries of refuge.
The authors make a compelling case that this was a serious mistake. The UN-sponsored and western -funded UNRWA schools became the crucible of a Palestinian identity rooted in the belief that the existence of the State of Israel was an intolerable injustice which they were duty bound to correct. In due course the children brought up in this system became the foot soldiers and leaders in a terrorist campaign to reverse the results of the 1948 war and undo the existence of Israel. Thus UNRWA, a UN- sponsored entity, became a strong factor in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Turning to the present, the authors describe an UNRWA which is controlled by the Palestinian refugees and which continues to promote both the “right of return” and the inevitable liberation of all of Palestine. This is an ideology which is incompatible with the UN charter and with the two-state solution, the express policy of the western states which still provide most UNRWA funding. They make a compelling case that putting an end to UNRWA is a necessary first step to opening up the possibility of peace.
The final section of the book offers a sector-by-sector examination of UNRWA’s present activities and proposes a strategy in which UNRWA can be abolished without harming the Palestinian Arabs who still depend on it for health, education and welfare.
A problem whose causes are unrecognized is unlikely to be solved. A problem for which the cause is incorrectly identified is as likely as not to be tackled with inappropriate strategies, which may exacerbate it rather than fix it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a conflict in which decades of diplomacy have failed to correctly address the cause of the problem. It is not surprising then that we are no closer to solving it than we were in 1949.
The authors of this book have made a compelling argument which points us in the right direction, so that future efforts may have a greater chance of success than the efforts of the past 70 years. I heartily recommend it to any reader concerned about the future well-being of Israel and the Palestinians.
David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa. He is secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.