By: Jan van Benthem
Amsterdam – With Israel’s current large coalition government, Prime Minister Netanyahu says that this is the best chance to make peace with the Palestinians. But according to Einat Wilf, Chairman of the Independence Party in the Knesset, the window for peace is closed for the time being.
Yet she wants to create the conditions for peace talks to resume soon. An important component to achieving these conditions is determining the actual number of Palestinian refugees. The UN says that there are five million. According to Wilf, though, there are tens of thousands, and in her eyes, this crucial difference will help determine whether or not there can be a peace agreement.
Soon after she became a member of the Israeli parliament, Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin told the Jerusalem Post that Einat Wilf is the “unofficial Foreign Minister of the Knesset.” Rivlin said that Wilf is “one of our most important ambassadors. But since January of this year, this ‘Ambassador’ also has a very personal message: do something about the Palestinian refugee problem. If not, forget about peace through a two-state solution.
Central to Wilf’s vision is UNWRA, the UN agency charged with caring for the Palestinian refugees from 1948 to the present-day. According to UNRWA, in 1950 there were approximately 750,000 refugees. But, according to UNRWA’s policy, “Descendants of these refugees are also eligible for registration.” And so the number of registered Palestinian refugees has grown to five million. All of them claim the right to ‘return’ in the peace negotiations so the refugee issue, in addition to the issue of Jewish settlements in territories on the West Bank, has become one of the two main stumbling blocks to peace.
This immense refugee problem is, for the most part, artificially maintained by UNWRA, says Wilf. Last week she was invited by the CIDI to visit the Netherlands, one of the donors of UNRWA, to explain her vision to several MPs.
In summary, Wilf suggests that the original Palestinian refugees have the right to return, but not their descendants. This is based on the policies of the UNHCR, the general UN refugee agency responsible for all refugees in the world – except for the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948.
In addition to her meeting with members of the House, Wilf spoke with a Dutch newspaper about her project and its estimates of the chances for peace.
If you say the right of return you are referring to the original refugees. That is, given the average life expectancy, with sixty years passed only tens of thousands remain. That seems like a very convenient way to solve the Palestinian refugee problem: wait longer and the problem will no longer exist.
“That’s not the fault of Israel. The Palestinians are the only refugees with their own UN refugee agency. Through them, they continue to register as refugees, and the world has too long collaborated with countries like Syria and Lebanon in the denial of civil rights for these Palestinians in the countries where they live now.
In addition, UNRWA has, for example, registered half a million inhabitants of Gaza as refugees. But these people live in the Gaza Strip, Israel has no presence in that area, nor does it want to – why should they be seen as a refugee?”
Compensation for Lost Possessions
You recognize the right of return for the original refugees. But suppose they are already deceased, what about the right to compensation for lost property, such as houses and land? How long will that be relevant for?
“That law is indeed hereditary, like the compensation of stolen Jewish property during World War II. Even now relatives are still compensated for such stolen paintings. Even so, families of Palestinian refugees should be compensated for the property that their ancestors lost in 1948. That law remains for distant generations. ”
You aim your criticism directly against UNRWA. Why specifically against this organization?
“UNRWA and therefore the Palestinians are separate from all other refugees when the UN is considering it. Then, because the Arabs saw the inclusion of the Palestinian refugees under the help of the UNHCR as a kind of recognition of Israel, they would not all them to be included.
In addition, it is UNRWA’s own decision to register the descendants of refugees as refugees, which now includes the-great-grandchildren.
This keeps the conflict and UNRWA alive, and makes the two-state solution impossible. ”
The two-state solution means a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu now finally has a broad coalition government, so he has much more political leeway. Does that thereby increase the chances of peace?
“Netanyahu’s position is indeed unrivaled and offers what, as far as the Israeli national electorate is concerned, the best starting point for peace. But I focus on the Geopolitical and look at the big picture in history. I see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as an issue between Israel and the Arab world. And then I see that the window for peace is closed.
The window existed for 10 years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. The Arab countries had lost their great support, and America remained the only superpower. The Arab leaders focused, therefore, on the U.S., including their policy towards Israel. At that time big steps were taken, such as the Oslo Accords. But when Camp David failed, and especially after September 2001, the window slowly closed again. The fact that in those ten years we failed to achieve peace shows just how deep the conflict is.”
So the diplomatic attempt early this year by the U.S., and the recently exchanged letters between Abbas and Netanyahu, have little affect on the situation?
“After the so-called Arab Spring, there is little enthusiasm for the peace process. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism has become more evident. But that does not detract from our own responsibility, to work under the new conditions to bring the peace process back to life if the opportunity presents itself again.
In this context, we must ensure that terms are used in a correct manner and that a middle class family in Ramallah in the third generation is not continued to bear the status of ‘refugee.’
What is the role of international diplomacy at this stage?
“Diplomacy will not create a breakthrough and will certainly not force one. But it can help to create good conditions, by building a good Palestinian governance. The office of Tony Blair, special envoy of the Middle East Quartet (UN, U.S., Russia and the EU), is doing excellent in this respect. I am impressed by the work done in this area. And on the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a positive influence.
Remember that we Jews and Palestinians, the economic lot better than the rest around us, and even better than the EU and the U.S..
What we need are people like Blair and Fayyad, who don’t just sit around or give-up, but in all modesty lay out the heavy groundwork necessary to develop and build structures for the long term. And all the while, we must continue to seek opportunities to make a peace agreement a reality. ”
No demographic suicide
Einat Wilf is not alone in her approach to the Palestinian refugee issue. In our country, for example, the VVD asked minister Rosenthal last year for clarification on the criteria used to define the UN Palestinian refugees.
Two weeks ago the U.S. Senate passed a bill that instructs the U.S. State Department within a year to report how many original refugees still receive assistance from UNRWA and how many are descendants of refugees. According to the office of the bill’s creator, the Republican Senator Mark Kirk does not intend to deprive the Palestinians of international aid, but to increase the chances for a peace agreement. By limiting the Right to Return to the first generation, Israel would not have to commit “demographic suicide,” which under UNRWA’s current policies it would need to if recognizing this right.