Even with al Qaeda making gains across the Middle East and Iran still enriching uranium in its march to a nuclear breakout, John Kerry’s attention is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has visited Israel 10 times since becoming secretary of state. The aim of Kerry’s feverish shuttle diplomacy is to hammer out a framework agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that will be long on generalities and short on thorny details and, as such, will enable peace talks to move forward. The objective is to establish an independent Palestinian state and to end the conflict.
The strategic goal of this immense investment of American time and prestige is grounded in the conventional view, evidently shared by Kerry, that achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace will improve America’s relations with the Arab-Muslim world and foster stability in the Middle East. But a little reflection upon the character of the conflict should raise serious doubts about the cogency of this view. As improbable as a deal is at present, if Kerry really were able to broker a peace accord, it would most likely engender a harsh backlash, thereby damaging America’s relations with the Arab-Muslim world and undermining stability in the region.
If this claim seems counterintuitive, that’s because one of the basic assumptions animating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is that the Arab-Muslim world in general and the Palestinians in particular are angry over the failure to establish a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The main grievance in the Arab-Muslim world, however, is not that in 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank and has denied the Palestinians their right to national self-determination ever since, but that in 1948 the Jews uprooted Palestinians from their homes and built a state upon stolen Palestinian land.
This narrative ignores inconvenient facts like the ancient Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, the Arab refusal to accept the U.N. partition plan, which the Israelis accepted, the war that the Arab states then initiated in 1948 in order to destroy the incipient Jewish state and throw the Jews into the sea, and the subsequent expulsion of nearly one million Jews from Arab countries. But playing the victim distorts perceptions, and the governing perception in mainstream Arab-Muslim discourse is that the establishment of the state of Israel was a crime, and to accept the existence of the state of Israel is to acquiesce in that crime.
Among Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership, the nearly universal response to the founding of the state of Israel has been to keep the Palestinians exiled in refugee camps until they can return to their homes in present-day Israeli cities such as Jaffa, Haifa, etc. The Palestinian refugees’ desire to return to their original homes occupies a central place in Palestinian political discourse, and the tenor of Palestinian discourse reflects and influences the character of Arab-Muslim political rhetoric in general.
So let’s imagine for a moment that through a shrewd mixture of diplomatic pressure and financial incentives the United States succeeds in brokering a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis won’t sign on to a deal that enables millions of Palestinians to move to Jaffa, Haifa, etc., because this would mean the end of Israel as a state with a Jewish majority. Instead, the Palestinians will be absorbed into the nascent Palestinian state.
What would be the response in the Arab-Muslim world? Joy that the Palestinians have finally realized their right to national self-determination? Perhaps. More likely, however, is that with the 66-year-old dream of Palestinian return outstripped by reality, idealists and opportunists alike will characterize the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders as a historic betrayal. If recent history is any indication, Islamists will rally the masses against the dictatorial Arab leaders who consented to the betrayal, and popular opinion in the Arab world will respond accordingly.
And it is the United States that would be blamed for propping up these leaders and pushing them to betray the Palestinians’ right to return to their homes in present-day Israel. The response to Israeli-Palestinian peace will be anti-American rage and regional instability.
Viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from this relatively stark but straightforward perspective also helps to render intelligible the present negotiating positions of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu demands that the Palestinians recognize the right to Jewish national self-determination in the Land of Israel because he believes that the failure to grant such recognition is the root problem of the present conflict. Likewise, Abbas refuses to grant such recognition. As the talking points outlined in the internal Palestinian Authority documents published by Al Jazeera as “The Palestine Papers” explained, “recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ would likely be treated by Israel and third states as Palestinian recognition of Israel’s demographic objections to the right of return and, by extension, an implicit waiver of the right of return.”
The pursuit of peace in the Middle East can be intoxicating stuff, but a sober approach to peacemaking would be to treat the Palestinian refugee problem before trying to conclude a deal.
President Obama has spoken eloquently in various contexts about the importance of compelling different sides to a conflict to face difficult truths. That’s why the president went to Jerusalem and told an Israeli audience that the occupation must end. For the sake of peace in the Middle East, President Obama can also tell a Palestinian audience that there will be no right of return.
If, however, the Palestinian position regarding the refugees proves to be uncompromising, then at least the Americans will know that the enticing yet ever elusive vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace is, at present, no more than a Middle Eastern mirage.
Aryeh Tepper is author of Progressive Minds, Conservative Politics (SUNY Press). He is presently a visiting scholar at the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem.