Neither Einat Wilf nor Adi Schwartz would actually describe themselves as former-leftists. But both, like many other Israelis, have become disillusioned with the left-wing peace camp’s failed approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a former Member of Knesset with the Labor Party and later with the breakaway Independence Party. Before that, she was an IDF intelligence officer, earned a degree from Harvard University, and completed her Ph.D at the University of Cambridge.
Adi Schwartz is an Israeli journalist who worked for years as a staff writer and senior editor at the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz. He today teaches journalism at Sapir College in the northern Negev.
The two co-authored The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, recently updated and translated from Hebrew to English. During a press conference hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club they characterized the book as an effort to convince both fellow Israelis and the international community to finally deal with the real obstacle to peace: Palestinian insistence on a “right of return” to sovereign Israel.
Characteristic of an entire generation of “secular” Israelis, Wilf explained how she and many others were so desperate to end the conflict that they latched on to partial or misinterpreted remarks by Palestinian leaders to convince themselves that exchanging land for peace was a viable solution to the conflict.
Even more foundational to the mistakes of the peace camp was its assumption that the war had ended.
“Israel and the West often understand one thing, while the Palestinians are saying something else entirely,” explained Wilf. “We are so eager to see a real possibility for peace that I often compare Israelis to eager teenagers who receive half a text message and exclaim, ‘Oh, she loves me!’”
The reality, as Wilf and Schwartz would find, was far more disheartening.
More and more Israelis are realizing that the Palestinian narrative is not mere rhetoric, but a genuine threat to Israel’s future.
“For both Adi and I, this book is something like a coming of age story,” said Dr. Wilf, “because we both grew up with and believed in the reigning assumption of how Israel should make peace with the Arab world in general, and with the Palestinians in particular. And the reigning assumption throughout the 80s and the 90s was that Israel can achieve peace by exchanging land.”
And Israel had gained much land with which to bargain in the various Arab wars against her. The stage seemed set for peace. But that hope was abruptly shattered the following decade.
“What devastated us, and in this way we reflect much of the Israeli peace camp, was that in the year 2000 and later in 2008 two Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat and later Abu Mazen [the nom de guerre of current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas], walked away from concrete opportunities to realize this land-for-peace exchange and to have a sovereign state of their own,” said Wilf.
“And not only did they walk away,” she continued, “what followed were waves of violence, and a lot of Israelis from the peace camp, Adi and I among them, began to ask, what do the Palestinians really want? If they walked away from two concrete opportunities to end the occupation and to have their state, then what’s really going on?”
The answer, as Wilf explained, had been staring them in the face the entire time:
“We both realized through meetings with Palestinians and ultimately through our research that the Palestinians had been telling us what they want. We just either didn’t listen, or when we did listen we didn’t take it seriously. They told us that what they prize above all else is this thing they call the ‘right of return.’ They are basically insisting that they have an internationally-sanctioned right for millions of Palestinians to settle inside the State of Israel.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ rejectionism has exposed his true outlook on peace with Israel.
A simple, insurmountable obstacle
While it might come across to Western peace brokers as mere rhetoric meant to keep the Palestinian street happy, this dangerous pipe dream has proved a simple, yet insurmountable obstacle to peace.
As Dr. Wilf clarified:
“Whenever Palestinians say that they support a two-state solution, but in the same breath insist that the right of return is sacred, then the numbers are such that the only two states they ever envision in a peaceful resolution are a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and another Palestinian state to replace Israel.”
To put it another way:
“There has not been to date a single Palestinian vision for peace in which Israel is allowed to stand as is, as the sovereign state of the Jewish people, at the end of the process.”
And that, obviously, is a non-starter for Israel.
A Palestinian craftsman makes wooden keys symbolic of the properties in Israel that Palestinian “refugees” expect to return to.
Time for a new message
So what can be done? Is Israel doomed to either accept its own demise or remain forever in conflict?
Schwartz believes there is a way out, but it requires a paradigm shift in the international community’s approach to the issue.
“Since 1948, the wrong message has been sent to the Palestinians. The phenomena of refugees is not unique to the Arab-Israeli conflict. We had refugees in Europe after World War II, we had millions of refugees fleeing India and Pakistan, etc. Whoever knows the history of the 20th century knows we had tens of millions of refugees,” he noted, adding that “none of them are still with us [as refugees]. Why is that?”
The reason, of course, is that “the international community has sent a very clear message that if a war is to be over, then people move on with their lives. They will not return [to their former homes]. The scenario is very simple: if refugees go back, the war starts over. And that was the case in Europe, Asia and many other places after the wars there. The international community made it very clear that return as a solution is not viable.”
Now, the exception, as we all know, is the Palestinians.
“Not only did the international community fail to send a clear message to the Palestinains,” said Schwartz, “it created a special UN agency, UNRWA, which actually became a tool for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee situation rather than solving it. So the message was exactly the opposite what it should have been.”
Until this fundamental issue is tackled, insisted Schwartz, no peace proposal is going to succeed because the Palestinians will continue to cling to the notion that through “return” they can one day undo the State of Israel.
No other refugee population has ever had its own dedicated UN agency. Does this strike no one else as odd?
UN complicity in this conflict goes far beyond simply perpetuating Palestinian refugee status.
As Dr. Wilf recalled:
“One of the most shocking realizations for us in working on the book was discovering the major role UNRWA played in forging a very particular kind of Palestinian nationalism. Once UNRWA became responsible for all the schooling of the Palestinians, this is the moment that the Palestinians were forged as a single nation with a collective purpose and understanding of history and of the future.
“There’s nothing wrong with the forging of a new Palestinian nation in the refugee camps. The problem is that the kind of Palestinian nationalism that is forged there is one that is singularly focused on revenge and return. And that feeds very directly into terrorism.”
As such, explained Wilf, it comes as no surprise that the perpetrators of the bloodiest Palestinian acts of terrorism are children of these UNRWA schools. They have been raised, by the international community no less, to see retaking what was supposedly taken from them as their sole purpose in life.
Three fine graduates of UNRWA schools hold a press conference in Gaza.
For peace to happen, the war must end
The press briefing was supposed to be about Israel’s intended annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank, in accordance with US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century.”
Naturally, the Israeli peace camp is up in arms over the proposed move, but Wilf and Schwartz said that while they don’t support annexation, it’s largely a moot point.
“Any such act will not add to the possibility of peace, but will also not harm it. At this stage, the conflict is not about territory. We wish it was just about territory,” Schwartz stated. “The issue now is changing the long-term Palestinian mindset, which is still not yet at the point where we can draw borders.”
Dr. Wilf added that the problem of making such a big deal over annexation is that it “continues the old discussion that the problem is land for peace. As long as the conflict is and remains about the Palestinian idea that all of it is theirs, that they need to undo the injustice of 1948, then any discussion about land is utterly irrelevant.”
Annexation, Wilf noted, is reversible. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in the early 1980s, and later considered returning it to Syria when peace with that neighbor still seemed possible.
“There are a lot of good reasons why not to annex [the Jordan Valley],” Wilf continued. “But the only one I refuse to accept is that doing so will kill the two-state solution. That analysis completely misses the fact that the two-state solution was never alive for a single minute because of the Palestinian vision of return. A two-state solution as originally envisioned by the UN, a Jewish state and an Arab state, is one that the Palestinians are yet to accept.”
Annexation and Jewish settlements have become something of a straw man argument for those looking for a reason for the lack of peace, but who don’t want to blame the Palestinians.
Now, don’t misunderstand her. Dr. Wilf very much opposes the Jewish settlement enterprise in the biblical heartland. In fact, she has described herself as an atheist in other media appearances, and so certainly sees no faith-based imperative to settle the entire Land of Israel. Even so, she stressed that “only once the Palestinian vision is one that accepts the Jewish claim to this land, that we both need our own nation-state in this land, can we finally have a fairly simple negotiation about borders.”
Again driving home the crux of her argument, Wilf concluded:
“For peace to happen, the war must end. If you want to have peace, there has to be a recognition that the war is over. But from the Palestinian perspective, the war of 1948 is very much an open case that they still very much hope to win.”