The Palestinian refugees who abandoned their homes in 1948 were casualties of a war started by the Arab world with the objective of preventing the creation of a Jewish state. Some of the refugees fled at their own initiative; others were, in modern parlance, ethnically cleansed. The nascent State of Israel was fighting a war of existential survival. It owes no apologies for its behavior in 1948.
UNGAR 194 was adopted in 1949 with the aim of ending the new refugee problem quickly by means of return and compensation. When you go back and read it, it invokes a degree of moderation: if refugees agree to "live at peace with their [Israeli] neighbors", then they "should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date". There is plenty of qualifying language here that has enabled Israel, over the years, to insist that UNGAR 194 is not feasible because we are still effectively at war.
The Palestinian national movement, for its part, has turned 194 into a blatant demand that Israel accept the refugees’ "right of return"–a phrase neither mentioned nor implied in that resolution–as a condition for peace. Hardline Palestinians argue that Israel must allow millions of refugees to inundate the country, thereby in effect compromising its status as a Jewish state and negating UNGAR 181, which explicitly created "Jewish and Arab states" in Mandatory Palestine. Moderate Palestinians insist that ways can be found to reassure Israel that only a small portion of the refugees would actually return. But they too are very insistent that Israel at least recognize the "right" of all refugees to return.
In other words, for moderate Palestinians an acceptable final status peace agreement would involve a relatively symbolic return of, say, tens of thousands of refugees, coupled with agreed language regarding UNGAR 194 that could be understood by the Palestinian national movement as Israeli acknowledgement of guilt, or blame, or shame, for having created the refugee problem in the first place. Many Israelis understand this as a demand that Palestinians be awarded psychological compensation in the form of an Israeli admission that Israel was "born in sin"–that Palestinians were "right" and Israel "wrong" in 1948. That is not what UNGAR 194 is all about. That is not what Israel is all about. This cannot and must not be the basis for peace.
This set of Palestinian demands relies on a remarkable Arab achievement regarding the Palestinian refugees over the past 50 years. Not only has UNGAR 194 been distorted beyond recognition in the Arab narrative, but Palestinian refugees have been awarded their own unique UN agency, UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency), while all the rest of the world’s refugees make do with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Further, statutes have been promulgated by UNRWA to ensure that refugee status is passed on from generation to generation, to eternity. Thus the Palestinian refugee problem grows exponentially with every passing year. With a fifth generation of Palestinian refugees upon us, and factoring in intermarriage between refugee and non-refugee Palestinians, we are seemingly guaranteed that this problem will never be resolved because virtually all Palestinians will soon be able to claim refugee and "return" status. Nowhere else in the world has a refugee problem been tre! ated, or mistreated, this way.
There are a few Palestinians who recognize the absurdity of the Palestinian right of return demands. But in the Palestinian mainstream, generations of Palestinians have been educated on the concept that Israel will indeed eventually recognize the right of return and repatriate those refugees who so desire. Thus the refugee issue has become perhaps the single most difficult obstacle to peace.
I can conceive of one possible compromise position that might somehow, at some point, be useful in reaching agreement on the refugee issue. Israel would reiterate categorically that it rejects the right of return. But in the spirit of UNGAR 194, it would offer to repatriate those original refugees, i.e., Palestinians who themselves left the country in 1948, who wish to spend their last years in Israel and are prepared to do so in a spirit of peace. No extended families-only the original refugees themselves, all at least 56 years old, who would number between a few thousand and a few tens of thousands.
Palestinians could, and hopefully would, interpret this as a humanitarian gesture that goes to the core of their grievance. Israelis could claim to be faithful to the original intent of UNGAR 194, without in any way validating the Palestinian narrative regarding 1948 or the Palestinian interpretation of UNGAR 194, both of which are antithetical to the spirit of a genuine two state solution and to reconciliation between the two peoples.
If we cannot invoke a compromise of this nature regarding UNGAR 194 and the right of return, I fear we will remain far from an agreed end to this conflict.