- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

When the Palestinian leadership and Arab foreign ministers talk uncompromisingly about the "sacred right of return" for Palestinian refugees to Israel, it is difficult for someone of my background to view such statements other than as the cynical exploitation of genuine human tragedy.

I am the son of a refugee. My father was liberated from the Nazis by the tanks of General Patton's Third Army on April 13, 1945. He was taken to a displaced persons facility run by the U.S. Army in Hillersleben together with former concentration camp inmates and slave laborers. Shortly thereafter, that sector was transferred to Soviet control and my father joined the flow of refugees westward.

My wife is also the child of refugees. In the early 1940s both of her parents fled Aleppo in Syria for fear of their lives, leaving their homes and property behind. My mother-in-law tells the story of a desperate journey south by foot, a journey which not all of the family members survived. The stories of my own family are in no way atypical of the refugee experience of hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled both post-Holocaust Europe and the newly independent Arab States.

Of course, not only Jews were refugees in that period. In the turbulent years following World War II, millions of people across the globe became refugees. In Europe, the new postwar borders made Germans, Poles and other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe into refugees. In South Asia, the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India displaced large populations of both Muslims and Hindus. Over the course of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-1949, in which seven Arab armies invaded the newly independent Israel, between 600,000 and 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes.

Today, some half-a-century later, Europe knows no German or Polish refugee problem and the Indian subcontinent is not plagued by the refugee issue. Israel has successfully integrated more than two million Jewish refugees. Thus, the question that must be asked is why has the same process of healing not occurred with the Palestinian refugees? Why in the Middle East of today do the grandchildren and great grandchildren of people who left their homes in the late 1940s still squalor in refugee camps?

The unfortunate truth is that over the last 50 years the Arab governments and the Palestinian leadership have acted to thwart efforts to resettle the refugees or to integrate them into host societies. This was part of a deliberate policy to keep the refugee issue alive as a political weapon against Israel. In perpetuating this very real human tragedy United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 has been deliberately misread and misrepresented to legitimize opposition to practical measures which would help the refugees.

Sadly, this longstanding Arab policy was recently reiterated once again by Palestinian leaders who publicly expressed their opposition to former President Clinton's proposals for the refugees "to return to a Palestinian state that will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home." The American proposal was in accordance with both the spirit and letter of Oslo, the logic of the process being that the Palestinians could have national self-determination in their own state while Israelis would live in peace and security in theirs. The slogan that sums it up is: "Two States for Two Peoples." In fact, had the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League not rejected the two state solution proposed by the United Nations in 1947, General Assembly Resolution 181, the Palestinian refugee tragedy could have been avoided.

Surely it is legitimate to question the political motivations of those who oppose practical solutions to the Palestinian refugee issue and who would rather call for the implementation of the "sacred right of return." Those who support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state but seek simultaneously to force Israel into receiving millions of Palestinian refugees are not only negating the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership for its own people but are seeking to destroy Israel as the state in which the Jewish people have national self-determination. Their desire is to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza while establishing a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state in place of Israel. In simple terms, the proponents of the "right of return" to Israel are in fact saying "our state is ours and your state is half ours, too." Surely such a position is morally indefensible.

In addition, the practical political effect of the "right of return" is to put on the negotiating table a demand which no Israeli government, no matter how moderate, can ever accept. By attaching to this demand the aura of a divine command, the Palestinians are stifling the hopes of a real breakthrough in the peace process.

Indeed, it was possible to end the suffering of the Palestinian refugees years ago by acting to resettle and reintegrate them into society. Today, the international community still has the opportunity to end the real human suffering of the refugees. Yet, such action can materialize only if there is a genuine will to solve the problem in place of the current motivation to exploit the issue for political gain.

I could also have been born in a refugee camp. The reason I was not is because no one had a vested political interest in perpetuating my father's status as a refugee. The same cannot be said for those Palestinians who remain prisoners of political cynicism.

Mark Regev is spokesman of the Embassy of Israel.

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