Israel Israeli occupation Middle East peace process Palestinians Peace Now

Will the next generation figure out how to deal with the “Right of Return?”

Last Monday evening, I decided not to give up hope for peace in the Middle East. Every honest person involved in this issue needs to consciously make that decision from time to time, even when there is almost no rational basis for hope. The Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, famously wrote of “pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.” When searching for shards of hope in the Middle East, too often one needs to rely on optimism of the subconscious, a kind of elemental energy that keeps surging of its own volition, in defiance of unrelentingly bleak news.

But sometimes there are more tangible reasons for optimism. This time, my reasons include a young Palestinian lawyer from Abu Dis, Abed Erekat, and a young Israeli Peace Now organizer from Tel Aviv, Noa Epstein. Together, and with the help of New York City psychologist and Americans for Peace Now activist Warren Spielberg, they have reinvigorated Peace Now’s Youth Dialogue Program, which offered hope in the 1990s but collapsed under the weight of the Intifadeh. They shared their experiences with a small group at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City, as they wound up a brief U.S. road show. Richard Greenberg of Washington Jewish WeeK saw them a few days before, and wrote;

The Israelis and the Palestinians have finally made peace.

At least a few of them have.

The symbolic accord (in the form of a broad conceptual framework for an agreement) was crafted in the fall during a seminar involving 50 Israeli and Palestinian college students meeting in a village midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

They negotiated under the supervision of two pragmatic optimists (one Arab, the other Jewish) connected with the Youth Dialogue program of the organization Peace Now..,demonstrating that an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not inconceivable, according to Noa Epstein, the Israeli half of the partnership.

“The idea is not to lose hope,” said Epstein, 25, a full-time activities coordinator for Peace Now who has a degree in international relations from Hebrew University. “If there is no hope, there is no point in staying in Israel. You have to cling to optimism and be an active optimist.”

She works in conjunction with Abed Erekat, a 27-year-old lawyer who lives in the West Bank community of Abu Dis, and whose command of English is not as accomplished as Epstein’s. Erekat said negotiations (at any level) are important because they serve as “nonviolent resistance to the [Israeli] occupation.” Asked if he, too, is optimistic, Erekat said: “Yes, but there must be a lot of work…

…The basic framework agreement the students hammered out last fall calls for a two-state solution to the conflict, with the borders of each state roughly coinciding with the 1967 lines of demarcation, according to Epstein. The Israelis and the Palestinians would each have a national capital in Jerusalem, with sovereignty of the Old City portion of Jerusalem being covered under a joint or international agreement.

In exchange for Israel removing its settlements in the territories and recognizing in principle the Palestinians’ “right of return” to Israel proper, the Palestinians would not exercise that right. Palestinian refugees would be compensated financially, although the issue of Middle Eastern Jews who were displaced in 1948 and thereafter was not discussed, according to Epstein.

Nobody forced these college students to get together. They did it of their own accord. When I asked Erekat how they had managed to figure out the question of the refugees, which they addressed in a manner that is similar to the formula proposed in the Geneva Initiative, he said, “Palestinians are starting to look at the `right of return’ as something impractical…We know we can’t have millions of people return. We can see from this group that there is a way to discuss this `red line.'”

Israelis, and their Diaspora supporters, need to start looking at how “impractical” it is to pretend there is a solution to this conflict without at least acknowledging the “principle” of the right of return, and without finding a way to acknowledge that Israel bears some reponsibility for the “Naqba,” although the Arab states and Palestinian leadership at the time were hardly blameless.

In response to the previous post on this blog, Jonathan Mark and Richard Witty, along with a few others, went back and forth repeatedly about the refugee question. Jonathan believes the right of return is a non-starter and should be off the table completely, that Palestinians should be persuaded to accept the formula of “land for peace” and nothing else. as if their narrative and their demand for an apology for what occured in 1948 can simply be wished away. Or, as our “Teddy” noted in his comment, “The apology and the acknowlegement are vitally important to the Palestinian people and the constant recitation of the other narrative, the Zionist narrative, is not going to change that.”

At the other extreme are those who insist that an influx of Palestinian refugees to homes abandoned 60 years is a realistic optiion. It is easy to sit in the U.S. and make such pronouncements. Palestinians in Abu Dis and Ramallah and Israelis in Tel Aviv and Ashkelon do not have that luxury.

We might have to wait for another generation or two or three to figure this one out. But it is heartening to see that young people on both sides of the Green Line are forcing themselves to confront problems that most of their elders believe are either intractable or capable of being resolved by wishful thinking.

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