There is nothing new in saying it is the fate of those who hope for the best for all those around them to face the consequences of these dreams and the pains that accompany them. While reminding ourselves of this maxim may not bring any benefit, it does us no harm to repeat it.
Palestinian–Israeli peace is an expensive dream. If the doors of pessimism were thrown open and all windows of optimism nailed shut, I would say that realizing this dream is an impossibility. This is why I immediately turn to the great novel The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptomist by the Palestinian writer Emile Habibi to stoke the embers of hope, particularly as without hope impatience takes over and restlessness prevails.
In less than one month’s time, on May 6, the State of Israel will celebrate its 66th anniversary. In terms of the age of a state, that is not a long time, but the reality is that what Israel has achieved in the fields of agriculture, industry and technology places it alongside countries that are hundreds of years older. Israel has also moved beyond states that historically possess vast empires, such as Turkey and Iran. As for Israel’s military superiority—which is the most important thing in terms of its relations with neighboring Arab states—there is no debate. Is it possible then for a country with so much power to fear peace?
The logical answer would be no. However, since the start of the Palestinian–Israeli peace efforts, successive Israeli governments have given the impression that they really do fear taking the final step towards peace with the Palestinians, along with all the consequences of this.
There is a question that may at first glance appear naïve, but it is one that I will chance asking: Do Israel’s politicians even know who the Palestinians they are trying to make peace with are? Is it the negotiating delegation of the Palestinian Authority? Or do the Israelis look beyond the negotiation room? I do not doubt for a moment that Israeli politicians and their advisers and analysts know very well that it is the millions of Palestinians in refugee camps inside Palestine and neighboring countries that they should be making peace with.
The issue is clear. The Palestinians who stayed in their homes in 1948 have become Israeli citizens. Israel has already achieved peace with them, even if there are grievances and demands; these can be resolved through the law.
The real problem for Israel is achieving peace with the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees spread across refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli politicians are well aware that any concessions granted to the Palestinian negotiating delegation will not necessarily persuade the Palestinian refugees of the merits of peace, particularly if this is a peace that does not guarantee them the right of return. This is a right the Palestinian delegation does not have the power to concede. As long as the situation remains as is, what’s the rush? It is as if the Israeli politicians are saying, “Let’s drag out the negotiations as long as we can.”
So, what is the solution?
There can be no solution if there is no will. What we mean here is will on the part of the stronger side, namely Israel. As the saying goes: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Only when Israeli politicians overcome the fear of peace with the 5 million Palestinian refugees will they be able to find more than one way to deal with the issue of the right of return in a humanitarian and civilized way that is acceptable in this era of globalization and the global village.
In politics, nothing is impossible unless there is an absence of political will. Would it not be possible, for example, to hold a referendum asking Israeli citizens about their vision for peace with the Palestinian people, including how to deal with the right of return? The Palestinians, for their part, could and should contribute to the debate by putting forward practical visions for dealing with this contentious issue. Here again, a referendum in the Palestinian camps could be considered an initial practical step.
Earlier this year I wrote about the Jewish identity of Israel, in which I called on Palestinians to meet Israel’s call to recognize the state’s Jewish identity. I was talking from a personal belief that such recognition would ultimately have no effect; it would not offer the state of Israel anything that it did not already possess on the ground and it would not take anything away from the Palestinian identity. This is a historic identity that goes back to Palestine as a land where the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths can live in peace. However, the Palestinian Authority refused to proffer this recognition, and the Arab summit in Kuwait supported the Palestinian rejection. What surprised me about the entire episode were the attempts made by some websites to portray what I had written as one side delivering a message to the other. This interpretation is so wild it is beyond belief.
Despite all this, I do not find anything in my original call embarrassing, and so let me say against that Palestinian recognition of the Jewish identity of the Israeli state will not cause the sky to fall or the earth to shake. Instead, it will show that the Palestinians do not fear taking whatever steps are necessary to achieve peace, as long as they are taken in response to the rights of everybody without discrimination.
So we remain hopeful in the spirit of the “pessoptimism” of Habibi, the anniversary of whose death, on May 2, is fast approaching. I recall meeting the writer, who was a member of the Knesset for several years, struggling for peace—even calling his son “Salam,” or peace. He was waiting for me at the airport just five days after the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993. An Israeli security officer asked me if it was my first visit to Israel. I answered in the affirmative. She went away and returned with a colleague and asked the same question; I gave her the same answer. They both went away only to return with a third colleague and ask the same question. I smiled, having realized that they were bringing witnesses, and answered explicitly: “Yes, this is my first visit to the State of Israel.” As I expected, the security officer objected, saying: “Your papers say you were born in Beersheba.” I responded, “Yes, but I left with my parents as a child of six months and never returned, and this is my first visit back. So what’s the problem?” The fact is, the problem started then, but that is a long story. As for Habibi, his tombstone is famously inscribed with the words: “Emile Habibi—Remaining in Haifa.”