Foreign Ministry to bring justice for Jewish refugees to peace debate

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announces the new parity policy for Jewish refugees. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

By RAPHAEL AHREN (The Times of Israel)

In a sea change from traditional diplomatic policy, the Foreign Ministry has decided to put the issue of Jewish refugees who fled or were forced to leave Arab countries after 1948 at the top of its agenda, demanding financial compensation for both Jewish and Palestinian refugees and blaming the Arab League for causing the entire problem in the first place.

“A true solution to the issues of refugees will only be possible when the Arab League will take historic responsibility for its role in creating the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problem,” the ministry stated in a document it distributed to journalists on Tuesday.

Critics said they doubted that the international community would accept the ministry’s proposal, adding that Jews who left Arab countries and became Israeli citizens could not be compared to stateless Palestinian refugees.

According to the Foreign Ministry, some 850,000 Jews were uprooted from Arab countries since the State of Israel was founded, losing assets of about $700 million (some $6 billion in today’s prices). Today, nearly half of Israel’s population is made up of such refugees and their descendants, the ministry said.

Israeli embassies around the world are to ask parliaments to adopt resolutions recognizing the refugee status of Jews forced out of Arab countries, similar to a 2008 resolution passed by the US Congress, the ministry added.

The idea of focusing on the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees absorbed by Israel from Arab lands is not entirely new. In the 1970s, the Foreign Ministry’s Diaspora Affairs section and MK Mordechai Ben-Porat dedicated themselves to the matter. However, the issue never really took center stage because Israeli officials feared bringing the Palestinian refugee issue to the fore.

Israel rejects the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Arab residents who used to live in what is today Israeli sovereign territory.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon set out the new approach Tuesday. “Only truth can bring justice. Everybody knows today, because of the Arab narrative that has been prevalent in the last few decades, about the Arab refugees,” said Ayalon, who is spearheading the ministry’s new campaign, at a press conference in Jerusalem. “But the other half of this equation was forgotten: Jewish refugees from Arab countries that were forced to leave their homes, their possessions, their heritage, and flee.”

Ayalon announced the creation of an “international fund” to compensate the countries that have already been working on absorbing and rehabilitating Arab refugees. Such countries include, among others, Israel, Jordan and “perhaps Lebanon if it is willing to rehabilitate the descendants of Palestinian refugees in its territory,” according to the document. The basis for such compensation will be the “value of the assets of the refugees at the time.”

The Foreign Ministry’s initiative, which has the blessing of the Prime Minister’s Office, makes clear that Jerusalem rejects the Palestinian demand for a right of return. “The Palestinian refugees will be rehabilitated in their place of residence,” the paper states, demanding an “immediate discontinuation” of the wish to resettle refugees within Israel.

“We have to correct a historic injustice. But, in a very pragmatic way, we believe that settling the refugee problems on both sides — the Arab and the Jewish side — is the only way to really bring about a durable, comprehensive and lasting peace. Peace that will be built on truth and justice for all,” the ministry said.

Ayalon said that the issue of Jewish refugees should be raised in every peace negotiation framework, in keeping with a law the Knesset passed in 2010. The PMO “will consolidate the issue [of Jewish refugees] into any future negotiations,” the document states.

The Prime Minister’s Office signaled that it agreed with the premises put forward by Ayalon. “It’s clear that the Palestinians’ refusal to show flexibility on the so-called right of return has been a major impediment of the last years to reach an agreement,” an official in the PMO told  Tuesday.

Ayalon said that United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which calls for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem,” refers to both Jewish and Arab refugees. “No differentiation” was made between the two groups, he said.

“The Arab nations, led by the Arab League, were responsible for causing both groups of refugees, Jews and Palestinians,” Ayalon said. “Especially now that we’re marking 10 years since the Arab League peace initiative, the so-called Saudi initiative, it is important that if they talk about a solution to our conflict with the Palestinians, that they recognize that the responsibility for the refugee problem is theirs,” the deputy foreign minister said.

While Ayalon’s proposal is likely to win the approval of many right-wing Israelis, critics said that Palestinian and Jewish refugees are not equivalent.

“It’s true that many Jews found themselves in Israel without having made plans to come — they escaped from Arab countries. But they were accepted and welcomed here. To define them as refugees is exaggerated,” said Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry. “A refugee is a person who is expelled to another country, where he is not accepted by the government. The Palestinians in Lebanon, or the Sudanese in Israel — they don’t have citizenship of the country they live in.”

Jews who fled Arab countries are entitled to demand compensation for the valuables they left behind, but it is unlikely that the world will accept Ayalon’s narrative of a parallel between Jews and Palestinians, he added. “I do think that, when the day will come for the Israeli government to talk seriously about Palestinian refugees, that the Jewish refugees will help cut cost of compensation to Palestinians. But we’re not close to that day, so why bother with this issue now?” he said.

Einat Wilf: Restructure UNRWA

Ayalon is not the only government MK who is dealing with the refugee question. Independence faction chair Einat Wilf has in recent months started a campaign calling for a restructuring of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.

“The international community sees the settlements as a major obstacle to achieving a final-status agreement. I would argue that the international community should just as much raise its voice every time that a baby born in Gaza is given the status of refugee,” Wilf recently told The Times of Israel.

“The Palestinians have fired the opening shot in a bid to move final status issues to international bodies,” she said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to have the UN accept Palestine as a full member state. “If we’re to keep the two-state solution alive we can’t wait for there to be an agreement and then resolve the refugee issue. Rather, we need to begin to restructure UNRWA in order to make a two-state solution and an agreement possible in the future.”

Wilf said she intends to contact parliamentarians of states that fund UNRWA and appeal to them to reconsider their support for the organization.

“By all means, keep funding hospitals, schools and welfare programs. But delink it from the refugee status. Give based on need, not based on the status of refugees.”