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Until the Refugee Issue Is Settled, There Will Never Be Peace

January 5, 2012 By:
Mervin J. Hartman
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We purchased an apartment in Jerusalem in 1979 and have spent three months in Israel each summer for the past 14 years. This has given us a distinct perspective on Middle East affairs.

Much has been written about the "moribund" peace process and the Palestinians' attempt to gain recognition at the United Nations.

In my view, the peace process is dead, and it is truly unfortunate that fellow Jews, particularly Americans, fail to recognize this development.

President Barack Obama and the Quartet continually repeat that negotiations should be based upon the 1967 borders -- actually, the armistice lines -- and mutually agreed land swaps. What few appear to recognize is that negotiations between the parties resulted in Israel offering land swaps, settlements near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for comparable land in the Negev and the division of Jerusalem.

The offer was made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton and later was sweetened by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he not only agreed to the division of Jerusalem, but said the Old City would be treated as a "holy basin" and the Israeli flag would not be displayed there. The Clinton/Barak offer was rejected by Yasser Arafat and resulted in the second intifada.

It is interesting to note that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, whispered "no" to Arafat. This is the same Abbas who as a graduate student at Moscow University wrote a paper claiming that the Holocaust was a myth perpetuated by the Jews. When challenged, he acknowledged that maybe 100,000 died.

The intifada not only destroyed further negotiations, but more than 100,000 Arabs residing in the West Bank and employed in Israel lost their livelihoods. Olmert's offer was ignored.

The question then is: What is there to negotiate? The answer, of course, is the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel's population. They, for the most part, do not refer to themselves as Israeli Arabs but as Palestinians. Only a token few refugees can return without affecting the Jewish character of the state.

There are more than 400,000 refugees living in squalor in Lebanon, which refuses to integrate them and wants to be rid of them. If they can't return to Israel, where are housing and income-producing jobs for them in the West Bank? Nobody talks about this. There are approximately 2 million to 2.5 million Arabs in the West Bank. The land has no natural resources, no major industries. They are totally dependent on aid from the United States, the European Union and Arab states to pay their bills. If such aid is cut off, the area will become a hotbed of extremism.

In a recent poll, 73 percent of Palestinians were opposed to a two-state solution. And it is likely that Hamas will take over when an election is held.

So to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for the failure of negotiations is nonsense. Until the world recognizes that the issue is not settlements, but dealing with the refugee problem in a way that does not result in demographically swamping Israel, there will be no negotiations. The Palestinians will not give up on the right of return. But until the refugee problem is solved, there will be no peace.

Mervin J. Hartman is an attorney with the Center City law firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads.

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