PEACEMAKING between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a long obstacle course. The conflict between them involves a number of issues perceived by the parties as central to their future. One such issue is that of Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian refugees are about half of the 6 million Palestinians in the world today. Most lead a miserable and insecure existence in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Jordan, in Syria, and in Lebanon. The rest are scattered all over the globe. Many are without citizenship of any kind, denied basic rights - such as the right to own property, to travel, to work, or to put a child in school.
A few have become successful professionals and business people and live in luxury in London, Cairo, New York, and other places. But they all have one thing in common: They are compelled to live away from their ancestral home.
They claim what has become known as the "Right of Return." And this is likely to be the thorniest issue to be negotiated in the ongoing Arab-Israeli peace process.
The right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land of their birth has been for more than four decades widely recognized as an essential element in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. On Dec. 11, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly approved Resolution 194 which resolved that the Palestinian refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property
of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible."
RESOLUTION 194, like other UN resolutions defining Palestinian rights, remains unimplemented and, therefore, one of the hurdles on the way toward peace between Arabs and Israelis.
It is a resolution that one side cannot forget and the other side would not accept. The Palestinians cannot forgo the right of return, because to do so is to abandon half their people and doom them to permanent exile. The precarious existence, and frequently bloody experience, of Palestinians in many Arab "host countries" has been too often demonstrated to require a debate.
The Israelis, on the other hand, fear the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel because it would "dilute" the Jewish character of the Jewish state and would diminish space available for new Jewish immigrants. That is why many Israelis oppose the Palestinian right of return more strenuously than any other right, including the right to an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is a difficult issue for both sides. It is understandable why the Israelis prefer not to face it, but it is self-defeating for Israel to expect the Arabs to normalize relations without normalizing the lives of their own people. The Palestinians do not rely solely on UN resolutions for their right of return. It is an accepted precept of international law that the right to leave one's country of birth (for whatever reason) and return to it is fundamental. And it has been the practice of nations that peo ple displaced by wars have an inherent right to return at the end of hostilities.
When Israel sought membership in the UN in 1949, it was granted membership after it assured the international community of its readiness to abide by UN resolutions on Palestine, including Resolution 194. To this day no country questions the validity of that right, although some prefer that the Palestinians not press for its implementation.
The political rights of Palestinian refugees could become the litmus test of seriousness about the peace process. The Likud government would not even send its negotiators to face the issue. Will a Labor government similarly bury its head in the sand and hope that the Palestinians will sacrifice the rights and well-being of half their people to accommodate Israel?