"A Path to Peace, Time is Ripe for an End-of-Conflict Deal in the Middle East"
Comment by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in The Washington Post.
Perhaps the most vexing topic of all is the question of Palestinian refugees.
The challenge is to find a durable solution that accommodates both the yearning of Palestinian refugees to return to areas they left in 1948 and the demographic fears of Israel, whose 20 percent Arab minority is growing faster than its Jewish population.
In an article we wrote for the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, we relied on two basic principles. First, refugees and their families should be given the choice to return to the general area where they lived before 1948 (along with the choice to live in Palestine, resettle in a third country or be absorbed by their current country of refuge if the host country agrees). Second, any return should be consistent with the exercise of Israel's sovereign powers over entry and resettlement locations. Many refugees presumably want to go back to their original homes. But these homes, and, in many cases, entire villages, either no longer exist or are now inhabited by Jews. The next best option from the refugees' perspective would be to live among people who share their habits, language, religion and culture -- that is, among the current Arab citizens of Israel. Israel would settle the refugees in its Arab-populated territory along the 1967 boundaries. Those areas would then be included in a land swap and end up as part of a new Palestinian state.
Together with generous financial compensation and other incentives to encourage refugees to resettle in third countries or in Palestine, this solution would fulfill key points. On one side, Palestinian refugees would carry out the right of return. For them, returning to the general area from which they fled or were forced to flee in 1948 would cross an important psychological and political threshold. Although they would not return to their original homes, the refugees would get to live in a more hospitable environment that would ultimately be ruled not by Israelis, but by their own people. Through the swap, Palestine would acquire land of far better quality than the desert areas adjacent to Gaza that have been offered in the past. For Israelis, this solution would improve the demographic balance, since the number of Arab Israelis would diminish as a result of the land transfer.
Some Palestinians might argue that this plan represents nothing more than a sleight of hand, disguising resettlement in Palestine as a return to their pre-1948 lands. But do the refugees actually want to live in Jewish areas that have become part of an alien country? Would they rather live under Israeli rule than Palestinian rule? And short of calling into question Israel's Jewish identity, is there any other way to implement the Palestinian right of return?
HUSSEIN AGHA, senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University, has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for more than 30 years. ROBERT MALLEY is director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group.
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