of summiteering on climate change, non-proliferation, the economy,
and Iran swept
the Arab-Israeli conflict off the news - but not before Barack Obama
had spoken of a “just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle
startling turn of phrase - used just before his trilateral w ith
Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu - is a throwback to a much
earlier era of American peacemaking.
A focus on justice would be
a welcome break with the sterile Oslo
attempts to strike a deal on land percentages and refugee numbers.
The question is: Who defines
what constitutes justice today? In his speech at the United Nations
the next day, Obama sounded more like Bush junior, who is not often
associated with the rule of law. Obama spoke of “a Jewish State
of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent
Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation
that began in 1967.” Instead of achieving justice, this outcome
would actually undermine it.
Take the terms “viable” and
“contiguous.” For some years, these uninspiring words have been
appended to “Palestinian state.” Imagine a Palestinian declaring
“I have a dream: contiguity!” or “I have struggled for 100 years
to achieve viability.” The Israelis, who’ve achieved sovereignty,
yearn for security and recognition. The Palestinians strive for
self-determination, freedom, justice, and equality.
Terms like contiguous and viable
hint at an unpleasant truth: that the 42-year occupation may have
made free and sovereign statehood impossible. Palestinians could
well end up with a state that is viable (economic activity), contiguous
(tunnels under illegal settlements and Jewish-only roads), and “independent”
(a seat at the U.N.) while Israel maintains ultimate
control over policy and resources.
further undermines justice by speaking of Israel as a “Jewish State”
as Netanyahu wants. A Jewish state would continue to privilege Jews
over non-Jews and would exclude Palestinian refugees and exiles.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. The rights of Palestinian
refugees have been at the heart of the conflict since 1948. In fact,
this is what justice means to a Palestinian. Can the Arab-Israeli
conflict be solved without implementing the right of return? It
might have been, in the early, heady Oslo days given Yasser Arafat’s stature and the desire by some of the
younger generation to build a sovereign state in the occupied territories.
But Israel missed that opportunity and Arafat died
in 2004, imprisoned in his presidential compound by Ariel Sharon.
the right of return movement has grown considerably stronger. Karma
Nabulsi, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and an expert on Palestinian
refugee communities, says the right of return is now a point of
unity among Palestinians living under occupation, in exile or in
whether they are refugees or non-refugees and it is upheld by all
political parties and civil society.
Nabulsi recalls that the Oslo years raised the hopes of Israelis across
the political spectrum “that the refugees would disappear off the
map when they disappeared off the negotiating table.” They were
shocked to find, for example at Camp David
in 2000, that what had been shelved as a final status issue still
needed to be substantively addressed.
Nabulsi insists it is crucial
to engage the refugees and exiles - who constitute the majority
of Palestinians - in the discussion about implementing their rights.
It is also important to educate both sides about what this would
mean for them.
I reflected on the challenges
of educating around the right of return. Israelis would need to
see how this would work in practice and that it would entail neither
the destruction of Israel nor its Jewish ties. Palestinian refugees
need information on how Israel looks and functions to make informed choices
on whether to return or to opt for another country.
Palestinians have begun to openly
challenge their leadership on the issue. For example, in a recent
piece, the respected Palestinian author and journalist Fouzi El-Asmar
politely but firmly reminded Abbas that he does not speak for all
Palestinians. El-Asmar says Abbas was right to step in after Arafat’s
death. Yet, while he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority
in his own right, he is just the interim chair of the Palestine
Liberation Organization, the only body authorized to negotiate with
Until the Palestinian National Council is reconstituted to elect
a PLO chairman, El-Asmar underscores, no one has the authority to
compromise on Palestinian rights.
Justice can never be absolute:
The clock cannot be turned back to 1948. But a just way must be
found to implement the right of return, Nabulsi echoes the view
of most Palestinians when she says, “Until the refugees are put
at the centre of a real, substantive peace process, there will be
Guest Commentator. Nadia Hijab, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute
for Palestine Studies. This commentary was syndicated and distributed by
Agence Global. The Institute has produced authoritative studies
on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1963.
Its flagship Journal of Palestine Studies is published by the University of California Press. Click here
to contact Nadia Hijab.