November 13, 2019

Rethinking Palestine: A Paradigm Shift From the Political to the Humanitarian

It is time for the proponents of the two-state solution to admit that the Palestinians have failed the test of history in staking their claim for statehood.

A dispassionate evaluation of the events of the past two decades inexorably compels one toward an increasingly evident conclusion: The Palestinians seem far more focused on annulling Jewish political independence than attaining Palestinian political independence, far more committed to deconstruction of the Jewish state than to construction of a Palestinian one.

Accordingly, further pursuit of a Palestinian state is likely to prove both futile and detrimental. For as past precedents strongly suggest, it will advance neither peace nor prosperity, but only serve as a platform for further violence against Israel.

Thus, both political prudence and intellectual integrity inevitably militate toward the distinctly politically incorrect conclusion that establishment of a Palestinian state must be removed from the international agenda as an objective that is either desirable or feasible — and certainly as an objective that can be reconciled with long-term survival of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

However, even if the Palestinians’ spurious political demands for statehood are removed from the discourse, the grim realities of the Palestinians’ humanitarian predicament remain. This is the issue that Israel and the international community should focus on.

Cleary it is not possible in a single op-ed to provide either a comprehensive presentation of any far-reaching departure from conventional wisdom or persuasive argumentation to justify its component elements. The most that such severe constraints allow is to sketch the outlines of the proposal — and to hope that this will spark a wider, more detailed debate of the proposal’s feasibility, economic costs, international acceptability and its relative merits compared to other currently espoused alternatives.

Subject to this caveat, what would the elements of such an alternative paradigm comprise? To be comprehensive it would need to entail three constituent elements, all eminently libertarian. Two involve eliminating discriminatory practices against the Palestinians (a) as refugees and (b) as residents in Arab countries. The third involves facilitating free choice for individual Palestinian breadwinners to determine their own and their families’ future.

A brutally condensed tour de raison of the proposal begins with the refugee issue and the body responsible for dealing with it, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). While a detailed account of the pernicious and obstructive role UNRWA plays is beyond the possible scope of this piece, I must stress that it is a highly anomalous organization that perpetuates a culture of Palestinian dependency and the unrealistic narrative of “return.” All the refugees on the face of the globe are under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) — except for the Palestinians. For them a unique separate institution exists — UNRWA. Unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA’s definition of refugees includes migrant and temporary workers who were resident in Mandatory Palestine for less than two years and their
multigenerational descendants. The far-reaching significance of this can be condensed into the remarkable fact that if the universally accepted UNHCR criteria for refugees were applied to the Palestinian case, the number of “refugees” would shrink from close to 5 million to around 200,000. These figures starkly illustrate that both the scale and the durability of the Palestinian refugee problem is fueled by the distorted parameters of its definition. There is growing consensus that without abolishing UNRWA and folding its operations into UNHCR, no way out of the Palestinian-Israeli impasse is possible.

Folding UNRWA into UNHCR would of course have significant ramifications for large Palestinian populations living in the Arab countries, who would no longer receive the anomalous handouts paid to them. This leads to the second element of the proposal: the grave ethnic discrimination against the Palestinians residing in the Arab world, where Palestinians have severe restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement, employment opportunities and property ownership. But most significantly, they are denied citizenship in the countries where they have lived for decades. Palestinians living in these Arab countries overwhelmingly desire this citizenship — as numerous opinion surveys indicate. Accordingly, with the abolition of UNRWA and the accompanying changes in eligibility for refugee aid, a diplomatic drive must be mounted to pressure Arab governments to end their ethnic discrimination against the Palestinians; to desist from perpetuating their stateless status and allow them to acquire citizenship in countries where they have resided for decades.

This brings us to the third and final element of the proposal: Allowing individual Palestinians under Israeli administration to exercise free will in determining their destiny.
While the first two elements of the proposed solution are directed toward easing the plight of the Palestinians in the Arab world, this measure is aimed at those inside Israeli-administered areas.

In essence, it involves enabling individual Palestinians free choice in charting their future and that of their families. These efforts should focus on two major elements:

(a) Generous monetary compensation to effect the relocation and rehabilitation of the Palestinian residents in territories across the 1967 “Green Line,” elsewhere in   the world, presumably predominantly — but not necessarily exclusively — in Arab/Muslim countries.

(b) “Atomization” of the implementation by making the offer of compensation and relocation directly to the heads of families and not through any Palestinian organization that may have a vested interest in foiling the scheme.

Although some may raise a skeptical eyebrow as to the proposal’s acceptability to the Palestinians and its economic feasibility, two points should be underscored. 

Firstly, substantial statistical data indicate that a large portion of the Palestinian population would enthusiastically embrace such a measure. According to a 2004 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, only 15 percent would refuse any financial offer that allows them to seek a better life elsewhere, while over 70 percent would accept it. Indeed, given the choices of a life either under the rigors of Israeli control or worse, under the regressive regime that the Palestinians have hitherto provided, who could blame them?

As for the overall economic cost, the proposed plan would be comparable to any alternative under discussion — establishing a new state, developing its infrastructure and presumably absorbing a large portion of the Palestinian Diaspora within its constricted frontiers.

Finally, it should be remembered that for the prospective host nations, this scheme has a distinct economic upside. Given the scale of the envisioned compensation, the Palestinian immigrants would not be arriving as destitute refugees, but as relatively wealthy families in terms of average world GNP per capita. Their absorption would entail significant capital inflow into the host economies — typically around half a billion dollars for the absorption of every 2,000 to 3,000 family units.

The time has come for imaginative new initiatives to defuse one of the world’s most volatile problems for which remedies hitherto attempted proved sadly inappropriate. Accordingly, there seems ample reason to seriously address an alternative proposal, which at least, prima facia, will: 

* Defuse the Palestinian humanitarian predicament

* Inject billions of dollars of funds into the economies of host nations

* Ensure the continued survival of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people

Israel, the Palestinians and the international community can ill afford to dismiss it without a serious debate of its potential payoffs as well as its possible pitfalls.

Martin Sherman is currently the visiting Israeli Schusterman scholar at USC/HUC-JIR and the academic director of the Jerusalem Summit. He lectures in the security studies program at Tel Aviv University, served for seven years in operational capacities in Israel’s defense establishment and was a ministerial adviser to the Yitzhak Shamir government.