Recently Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced on twitter that he was launching a new “viral campaign” about Jewish refugees and migrants in Israel from the Arab world. From his official perch, Ayalon has jumped into a debate that already engendered much back-and-forth, including on Open Zion, when it was introduced in the U.S. Congress in late July.
This new effort is part of a broader pattern on the part of some Israeli officials and their supporters to raise the issue of Jewish refugees from the Arab world to "counterbalance" or offset the issue of the Palestinian refugees. These efforts are also linked to Israeli-inspired efforts in the U.S. Congress to redefine Palestinian refugees to include only those who were alive during the 1948 war and to defund the UN agencies that care for the refugees. There is a broad-based campaign to try to render the Palestinian refugee issue irrelevant as a final status issue so that Israel need make no concessions because of it.
It's long been a shibboleth of Israeli hasbara that there was “an exchange of populations” between Israel and the Arab world of roughly similar sizes, and therefore Palestinian refugee claims are moot. But the analogy is flawed in many ways and the new campaign is politically and diplomatically pernicious.
There is no doubt that the mistreatment of Jews in many Arab states in the decades following, and to some extent preceding, the establishment of the State of Israel represents a terrible stain on Arab honor. In many Arab states, persecution, anti-Semitism, violence and even expulsions contributed to the exodus of Jews from the Arab world. But the mass migration unfolded over many decades, and a great many different experiences and factors contributed to the profoundly regrettable emptying of the Arab world of most of its Jewish citizens.
The analogy is both a red herring and a sleight-of-hand.
It's a red herring because when they first started negotiating in Madrid and Oslo, the parties agreed that there were four key final status issues: borders, security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Until recently, no Israeli government attempted to raise the issue of Jewish refugees and migrants from the Arab world in Israel in the negotiations, just as Palestinians have avoided bringing up issues involving the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
It's a sleight-of-hand because the political impact of the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees is precisely the opposite of the “ingathering” of the Arab Jews in Israel. The Palestinian Nakba of 1948 was the destruction of a national society. The migration of Arab Jews to Israel, by contrast, and especially from the Zionist perspective, was the realization of a national agenda. However painful and ugly the circumstances at times were, it was the realization of the very purpose of the Israeli state. And these Arab Jews make up a huge percentage of the Jewish Israeli majority, so their presence in Israel has been and is essential to the fulfillment and maintenance of the Israeli national project.
For this reason, Israel strongly encouraged Jewish migration from the Arab states, and was heavily involved in promoting it through various means. There is an ongoing and heated debate about whether an Israeli-supported Jewish underground movement planted bombs against Jewish targets in Baghdad in 1951 in order to sow fear and prompt Jewish flight. Given the 1954 Lavon affair in which Israeli agents attacked Western targets in an effort to try to poison Western-Arab relations, it's not unthinkable these accusations could be true (in 2005, the surviving conspirators in the Lavon affair were officially honored by Israeli President Moshe Katzav). But it's also not particularly relevant, since anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior in Arab societies, including Iraq, were independently making normal life difficult and sometimes impossible.
There has never been a groundswell movement for Jewish refugees and migrants from the Arab world to return, and Israel has rarely raised the issue except to try to counteract the Palestinian refugee question. There is a fundamental contradiction between regarding ingathering and “aliyah" as a glorious fulfillment of the promise of Zionism on the one hand and as a terrible human tragedy on the other.
The negotiating process is already overburdened with difficult emotional issues. During the Annapolis meeting in November, 2007, the Israeli delegation attempted to raise, for the first time, the question of the "Jewish character" of the state of Israel. Neither the Palestinians nor the Bush administration acquiesced to the introduction of this question. Both the Palestinians and the Americans understood that it had profound implications for the Palestinian refugee question. And they understood that in normal diplomatic relations, states define themselves without demanding a recognition of their “character” from their neighbors as a condition for peaceful relations.
However, since returning to office in March 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has harped on the issue so incessantly that he may have succeeded in making it a de facto fifth element, yet another complicating factor that makes achieving a final status agreement all the more difficult. It's probably the case that, thanks to his efforts, some kind of language will have to be found to satisfy Israelis on that issue, although it will almost certainly have to come at the end, and not the beginning, of final status negotiations.
Both the Jewish refugee issue and the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state are clearly efforts to undermine one of the few remaining aspects of Palestinian leverage in the negotiations. For decades, everyone serious about the achievement of a workable two-state solution has understood that the most difficult political issues facing Israel and the Palestinians are Jerusalem and refugees, respectively. There has been an implicit assumption that a quid pro quo of painful concessions on these issues is a sine qua non for achieving a peace agreement. All the Israelis and Palestinians who have been serious about negotiations have understood this from the outset.
So it's difficult not to see Israeli efforts to secure an end run around the refugee issue, foreclosing it as a practical matter of negotiations, as linked to a desire to stonewall on Jerusalem. However, since no Palestinian leadership is likely to accept an arrangement in which the Palestinian capital is not based in East Jerusalem, these efforts are fundamentally incompatible with the actual realization of a peace agreement.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon—who in the past launched an online campaign to deny there was any occupation of Palestinian lands at all—and his boss and party leader Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman haven't been coy about their lack of enthusiasm regarding peace with the Palestinians. The history of the suffering of both Palestinians and Jewish Arabs must be honestly confronted, recognized and honored. But deliberately trying to introduce ever more final status issues, and delve even deeper into the painful histories that peace must overcome, is willfully and deliberately unhelpful. No wonder the new campaign about the Arab Jews is being championed by those Israeli leaders who make no secret of believing that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is neither achievable nor desirable.