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Opening Statement from Chairman Rep. Gary Acerman at the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia - 5/8/07

"Two Sides of the Same Coin: Jewish and Palestinian Refugees"

Congressman Ackerman in February 2007

"Two Sides of the Same Coin: Jewish and Palestinian Refugees"
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, Chairman
House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia
May 8, 2007

Many painful and complex issues obstruct the path of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All of the so-called "final status issues" are difficult, but some of them are at least well-defined in their parameters and even with regard to their possible solution.

Not so with the refugee question. Its origin, its scope, its terms of reference and its prospective solutions are all in dispute, making the refugee question the central and, perhaps, the most difficult of the final status issues.

For Palestinians, the refugee question, more than any other, embodies their cause. It carries the weight of their dispossession and collective anger against Israel; their frustration with the inability of their leaders to resolve their national crisis; and their sense of abandonment by the world, depite the reality that millions of Palestinian refugees daily receive services from UNRWA. It connects their statelessness and their ambivalent relationships with the Arab states that-with the noble exception of Jordan-have denied citizenship and equal rights to Palestinian refugees. It is the central repository for both their just claims as well as their most self-serving and selective misuses of international law. The refugee issue ties the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians in surrounding countries and the rest of the world. For Palestinians, the refugee question connects 1948 to 1967 to 2007 in an unbroken string of tragedy.

And for Israelis as well, the refugee issue is seminal. It resonates with both the legacy of their own history of diaspora and statelessness, and with the Holocaust and the closing of the world's doors in their moment of greatest need. Likewise, the refugee issue is redolent of the desperate but successful defense Israel made against Arab efforts to strangle their newborn state. The refugee issue for Israel is also about the expulsion of as many as 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East and the absorption of 600,000 of them into Israel in the fragile first years of its existence. In varying degrees, and in varying circumstances, between the years of Israel's founding and the 1967 Six-Day War, the Jews of Iran and the Arab world were compelled by circumstance, terror or government edict to forfeit not just their jobs, but entire businesses; not just their personal assets, but the property of entire communities; and most painful of all, not only did they lose their personal dignity and security, but their entire national identity. For Israelis, these factors, combined with six decades of unremitting war and terrorism, and the implications of demography, make Palestinian demands concerning refugees sound not like calls for justice, but calls for suicide.

There is great bitterness on both sides. Both Jewish and Palestinian refugees carry with them the conviction that their human rights have been trampled and that the world has ignored their displacement, suffering and loss. Jewish refugees have been successfully absorbed in Israel and elsewhere and, perhaps, as a result, their claims and misfortune have been largely ignored. The Arab world having denied them more than mere sufferance of their presence, most Palestinian refugees-including many who lack even legal identification-still linger in refugee camps that have in fact become small cities. Enraged and helpless, they have watched the national movement and institutions that were to have ended their statelessness, and resolved their claims, stagger, stall and stand now in real danger of collapse or disintegration.

Even as the claims have lingered and the grievances of the refugees have hardened, time has not stood still. The reality is that an exchange of populations has taken place; that the Jews of Iran and the Arab countries are not going back to those lands; and that the Palestinian refugees will not be returning to homes in the State of Israel.

President Bush made as much clear in his letter of April 2004 to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, wherein he acknowledged that "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel"

While including the words "agreed, just, fair, and realistic," President Bush nonetheless took some liberties with Palestinian options. I'm not certain this was wise. Even though I agree with the President's assessment of what is, and what is not possible, I have deep concerns about the wisdom of the United States handicapping one party to a negotiation before the deal-making begins. If you're going to run a high-stakes card game, you have to let the players handle their own cards. In the end, no one appreciates a rigged game.

Moreover, even if Palestinian negotiators decided tomorrow to depart from the fixed ideology that has developed around the refugee question; even if they were prepared to move forward within the confines described by President Bush; even if they came to the table agreeing with Prime Minister Olmert, that no Palestinian refugees will be allowed into Israel's sovereign territory; there would still be an enormous obstacle to progress. Quite simply, the outcome of any negotiations initiated on this basis wouldn't be acceptable or considered legitimate by the Palestinian people. Too large an edifice of illusion about the so-called "right of return" has been built up to be dispensed with overnight.

Year after year, polling among Palestinians shows consistent ambivalence, if not outright unhappiness with any practical plan to resolve the refugee issue-even when the so-called "right of return" is an incorporated element. Unfortunately, it appears that for a majority of Palestinians, "refugee-hood" has become an indelible component of their identity, and that an imaginary world with a"right of return" has become more precious than actual citizenship in Palestine. This reality-gap is a problem that needs to be addressed.

However, attempting to force Palestinians to give up their dreams in a vacuum would not only be ineffectual, but counterproductive. You can't coerce someone in love out of it. But they can be tempted by another offer. Especially one that is more attractive and available. Developing this offer, and finding the means in the international community to address the outstanding material claims of both groups of refugees, is where our task might begin.

I believe that Israel's foreign minister, recently sketched out this more attractive and available dream: "Two States, two homelands, for two peoples - Israel, homeland for the Jewish people wherever they may be. And Palestine, the homeland, the national answer for the Palestinian people, wherever they may be, including the refugees. ...This vision is not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. It is pro-peace."

Selling this alternative dream will not be easy. There is a great deal of hostility and mistrust to overcome. But working in our favor is the fact that there is no better offer coming any time soon. Or ever.