Avishai: Settlements, right of return must be addressed to reach peace

Avishai: Settlements, right of return must be addressed to reach peace

While the Palestinian Authority seeks to gain United Nations recognition as an independent state, nobody — not even its president, Mahmoud Abbas — believes such a state can come to fruition in the absence of direct negotiations with Israel.
And Abbas also knows that negotiations with Israel are futile as long as Israelis keep building settlements in the West Bank, according to noted Middle East author and reporter Bernard Avishai.
Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University who has written widely on the Middle East conflict, spoke at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 11, to discuss “Israel and the emergence of Palestine.” J Street Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee sponsored his presentation. He spoke to the Chronicle prior to his arrival in Pittsburgh.
By going to the United Nations at this point in time, Avishai said, Abbas is “trying to strengthen his hand.”
Although Israel may control most of the land the Palestinians wish to call their own state, the Palestinians will be in control of “two-thirds of the world’s hearts and minds,” he said.
And Palestinian control of the world’s hearts and minds will ultimately result in wreaking havoc on Israel’s economy.
“Israel has become a globalized economy,” Avishai said. “Even without a formalized boycott, if the Palestinians become more of a subject of the world’s sympathy, and Israelis become more of a subject of the world’s exasperation, a lot of the world’s companies will say, ‘I don’t want to work with Israel.’ ”
The decision not to work with Israel does not have to come from a company’s board of directors, Avishai said, but can come from individual engineers and managers.
“The Israeli economy is dependent on startups and building relationships with European companies,” Avishai said. “The little global startups have to prove up their products. If Israelis are selling solutions, they have to know what the products are. That means having relationships with managers in big corporations. If those companies’ engineers say, ‘I don’t want to deal with the Israelis,’ that’s when the ‘startup nation’ (Israel) runs down. That’s when you have a kind of vicious circle where lots of talented young people leave the country. It’s not a good thing. Israel’s political isolation will ultimately lead to its economic implosion.”
The solution to the threat to Israel’s “economic implosion” is obvious, according to Avishai.
“This is not rocket science,” he said. “Israel should be doing what it should have been doing 30 years ago: stop the damn settlements.”
But the result of returning the land on which the settlements are built is a hard pill to swallow for many Israelis.
“There are 600,000 Israelis living over the Green Line,” he said. “Even if Abbas offers what he offered to Olmert — that 62 percent of settlers can stay — that means that 200,000 Israelis will have to come back. A lot of people in Tel Aviv can’t envision how to do that.”
While the settlement issue needs to be resolved in order to proceed with a lasting peace, Avishai believes the Palestinians’ right of return “is a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed.”
“I think the time has come for both sides to get much more serious and specific about what they really want,” Avishai said.
He believes what the Palestinians really want is something akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid.
“The Palestinians want a common institution between Israel and Palestine that will provide redress for individual families that lost property and had their lives totally destructed,” he said. “People who were wounded by the 1948 war want redress and want their stories told.
Avishai believes Israel should put the right of return at the forefront of peace negotiations.
“There is no reason Israel should look at the law of return last,” he said. “I think that’s misguided. It has to start with the right of return, just as a
divorcing couple starts with custody of a child rather than who gets the rug in the living room.”
Israel needs to set up ways for Palestinians to seek compensation for their losses, and ways for them to choose either monetary compensation or to return to the land. The number of Palestinians who would actually choose to return to Israel rather than stay in a new Palestinian state is relatively low, according to Avishai.
“Polling was done in 2003,” he said. “If you look at all the Palestinians in the camps, you’ll never get more than 30,000 people who want to go back to Israel.”
If those numbers are true, Israel should not be concerned with losing its Jewish majority. And if the Palestinians can define what kind of Jewish state is acceptable to them, another roadblock on the path to peace can be removed.
“Abbas should say what kind of Jewish state is consistent with universal democratic principles,” Avishai said. “He doesn’t have to say ‘I accept a Jewish state no matter what kind of a state you are.’ Abbas could even welcome a Jewish national home in Israel as long as he stipulates as to what that means.”
“I think it’s crucial to understand that a two-state solution is in Israel’s interest, and that it’s not the end of the road. It’s a provisional thing,” Avishai said, noting that evolving cooperation will be needed on issues such as the administration of Jerusalem, water and security arrangements.
“The two states will have to be cooperative,” he said. “But we won’t be able to get to it unless we can envision what cooperation can mean.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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