An oft-repeated cliché of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that its solution involves nothing more than finding the right way to partition the land, and convincing both sides to do so. The War of Return, a recent book by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, dismantles this myth, arguing that the issue that above all motivates the ongoing Arab war against Israel is the claim that descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War of Independence have a right to “return,” not to a Palestinian state, but to a Jewish one. Benjamin Kerstein writes in his review:
From the beginning [of its existence], pressure was brought to bear on Israel to allow the refugees to return, and from the beginning Israel steadfastly refused, . . . believing that [doing so] would destroy Israel’s Jewish character and precipitate another, perhaps even more brutal war. Wilf and Schwartz reveal that this was in fact precisely the Arabs’ intention. The Arab media spoke openly of establishing a “fifth column” within Israel by repatriating the refugees, and the authors record the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi’s view that the Arab mood at the time made it clear that the right of return “was clearly premised” on “the dissolution of Israel.”
Although anti-Zionists today insist that Israel’s refusal to accept a return of the refugees was a uniquely heinous violation of human rights and international law, it was entirely consistent with the moral and legal norms of the time, [and remains so]. Interestingly, the violation of these norms and the exceptional demands made on Israel with regard to the refugees were chiefly legitimized not by the Arabs but by the West.
Wilf and Schwartz identify the [Swedish] diplomat Folke Bernadotte as the first architect of what the Palestinians call the “right of return.” Sent to the region [by the UN] shortly after the 1948 war, Bernadotte . . . formulated a brutally anti-Israel plan for peace, which rejected the already-established Jewish state in favor of a federal Palestine. He urged Israel to make major territorial concessions and supported the Arabs’ rejection of the new state.
Wilf and Schwartz provide an excellent historical study of, and useful practical suggestions for dealing with, one of the most intractable aspects of the long struggle between the two peoples. But I doubt that these suggestions will prove effective unless and until the Palestinians, along with the larger Arab-Muslim world, come to terms with the fact that they are not uniquely persecuted, that Israel is not uniquely evil, and that compromise is therefore possible after all. Only then will Palestinians be in a position to renounce the irredentist dream of return that stands so stubbornly in the way of the dream of peace. Unfortunately, such a reckoning is not likely to come soon.