Global Policy Forum

A Bridge Too Far


By Graham Usher

February 14, 2001

A victory by Ariel Sharon over Ehud Barak in prime ministerial elections is due in part to the latter's failure to end Zionism's "100-year conflict with the Arabs."

Some in Israel lay part of the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Barak himself, especially on his insistence on keeping Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and his refusal to withdraw Israeli military and civilian forces to the 4 June 1967 border.

But for Israel's Zionist left, the main culprit is the Palestinians' insistence that Israel recognise the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands in what was pre-1948 Mandate Palestine, but is now Israel.

In Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper on 2 January, 33 Israeli Jewish left-wing intellectuals published a statement addressed to the Palestinian leadership. "We want to clarify," it said, "that we shall never be able to agree to the return of the refugees to within the borders of Israel, for the meaning of such a return would be the elimination of the state of Israel." The signatories included such known Israeli liberals as Amos Oz and David Grossman.

Ilan Pappe is one Israel's "new historians," responsible for the evolving critique of received Israeli histories on the causes and consequences of the 1948 war. Unlike the signatories to the 2 January statement, Pappe is not simply an academic and writer but a leading member of the Jewish-Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality bloc in Israel and actively engaged in the struggles of the Palestinian national minority in Israel.

Like the 33 signatories, he too sees the Palestinian right of return as the "core issue" of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike them, he believes it is the Zionist left in Israel, not the Palestinian leadership, who "failed to go the extra mile for peace." Following are extracts from an interview Pappe gave to Al-Ahram Weekly in Haifa:

"Together with the Palestinian Intifada, the issue of the Palestinian right of return has effectively erased the Israeli left from the political map in this election. And this is because of the peculiar character of the left in Israel. For this is not a 'left' in the European sense, in the sense of being socialist or even social democratic in its economic, social or human policies.

"It is 'left' solely vis-í -vis the peace process with the Palestinians. It saw itself as the 'vanguard' of Israeli Jewish society. Its self-appointed task was to be the 'enlightened minority' that would help other Israelis cross the bridge from war to peace. Yet when that decisive moment came, between the failure of the Camp David meeting in July and the Palestinian uprising in October, the left betrayed its promise. And it did so precisely on the issue of the Palestinian right of return.

"The right of return is truly what President Clinton meant when he talked about 'going the extra mile for peace.' What Clinton -- and the Israeli left -- failed to understand was that this 'extra mile' is actually the last 1,500 metres to the peak of Mount Everest. And if you don't scale that, the rest of the climb -- the seven years of negotiations in the Oslo process for instance -- is meaningless.

"Why is the right of return the 'extra mile for peace'? And why did the Israeli left flee from it? This is not because anyone really believes that every one of the five million Palestinian refugees will return to homes and villages that no longer exist. Or that, once the right is recognised, the Palestinians would not be realistic about its implementation.

"It is the 'extra mile' because the right of return requires Israeli Jews to change the way they perceive and interpret the entire Zionist project, their own history and the 'Other' of that history, the Palestinian Arabs.

"Unlike the issues of East Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements and the 1967 borders, the right of return is the issue that requires us, Israeli Jews, to undergo a fundamental change in the way we perceive the legacy of the 1948 war. It requires us to understand why, after all these years, the right of return remains the cardinal Palestinian demand and why there can be no 'end of conflict' without a just resolution of it.

"The Israeli left failed these requirements. It did not even admit recognition of the right of return. Rather -- like Barak -- it wanted the issue obliterated, with a Palestinian denial that the right could ever exist. They wanted the Palestinians to say that we, Israeli Jews, were not responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem when every reasonable observer, let alone every objective historian, knows Israel was responsible and, eventually, will have to pay for this responsibility by participating in the implementation of the right.

"The Israeli left refused all this. Worse, it reverted to the old Zionist discourse that the advocacy of the right of return means that the Palestinians want to destroy Israel, 'stage by stage.' This means that what the left is saying is that if the Palestinians are serious about the right of return then we must prepare for war. This, in essence, is what Barak says. This is what Sharon says. And this is why I say in this election the left has been erased."



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