Tue, 29 Jul 2003

Palestinian and German refugees

Shlomo Avineri, Professor of Political Science, Hebrew University Jerusalem, Project Syndicate

The atmosphere could not have been more tranquil: A former royal castle in the rolling hills of the Taunus region near Frankfurt, where statesmen and politicians held an annual meeting dealing with the Middle East. Europeans and Americans, Israelis and Iranians, Egyptians and Turks, Palestinians and Tunisians rubbed shoulders. The novelty this year was the presence of representatives from post-Saddam Iraq, among them an official from the Kurdish Regional Government, as well as a high ranking Shi'ah representative.

The new situation in Iraq, along with the Middle East road map, were at the center of attention. On the opening night, a senior German government minister, himself deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs, addressed both subjects, displaying great sensitivity both to Israeli and Palestinian concerns. The evening proceeded along the expected anodyne trajectory until a Lebanese academic raised the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The senior German minister listened attentively, and then said: "This is an issue with which we in Germany are familiar; may I ask my German colleagues in the audience to raise their hand if they, or their families, have been refugees from Eastern Europe?"

There was a moment of silence. The issue is embarrassing in Germany, fraught with political and moral landmines. Slowly, hands were raised: By my count, more than half of the Germans present (government officials, journalists, businessmen) raised a hand: They, or their families, had been Vertriebene -- expelled from their ancestral homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia after World War II. It is estimated that up to 10 million were expelled, and with their descendants they make up today almost double that number -- almost one in four Germans.

In the hushed room, the senior German minister continued: He himself was born in Eastern Europe, and his family was expelled in the post-1945 anti-German atmosphere. "But," he added, "neither I nor any of my colleagues claim the right to go back. It is precisely because of this that I can now visit my ancestral hometown and talk to the people who now live in the house in which I was born -- because they do not feel threatened, because they know I don't want to displace them or take their house."

It was a highly emotional response to the Lebanese academic's question -- one that Arab representatives chose later on to ignore. But it was just one more expression of the context in which the issue of the 1948 Palestinian refugees has to be addressed.

As the German senior minister reminded the audience, there are numerous parallels in recent history to the Palestinian refugee problem. Anyone who now claims that the 1948 Palestinian refugees have a claim, in principle, to return to Israel, must confront the question: should the millions of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after 1945 also have the same right of return to their lost homes? The German minister supplied the answer.

The Palestinians' demand for the right of return has an analogous meaning. Insistence on it in 2000 at Camp David and Taba made clear to most Israelis that what the Palestinians have in mind is not undoing the consequences of the Six Day War in 1967. Rather, the demand for a right of return amounts to an effort to reverse the consequences of their defeat in 1948, when the Arab world went to war to prevent the state of Israel from being born.

It is worth keeping in mind what advocates of a Palestinian right of return now prefer to forget: Palestinian Arabs and four Arab members of the UN went to war in 1948 not only against Israel, but against international legitimacy and the UN plan for a two-state solution. There is no other example of UN member countries going to war to prevent implementation of UN decisions. This is what the Arab countries and the Palestinians did.