The number of Arab refugees from the 1948 war is roughly 30,000 and shrinking rapidly. Whatever disputed ‘right’ they might have had to go back to the villages destroyed during the Israeli War of Independence is dying with them. Such a ‘right’ itself seems to have been selectively granted given the absence of similar rights for the tens of millions of other people displaced by wars during the 1940s. In any case, the highly photogenic ancient keys to their abandoned houses will turn into prized family heirlooms to be framed and put on walls as decorations. The descendants of the original refugees probably have a reasonable claim for compensation for the property that was lost, just like the reasonable claim made by Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, but that’s about it.
Sure, there will be hundreds of thousands that will demand to ‘return’ to non-existent villages which their grandparents may have lived in as children. They will scream out such well-trodden lines as ‘we will never give up our right of return’ and ‘we will never forget the nakba’, but really, what memories will they have? Names for long ignored piles of stones and their GPS coordinates? Fine. Remember. I am even sure that there will be a brisk tourism trade in touring these historic sites. In fact, there are some in Israel already getting ahead of the game and publishing tour books that let tourists do precisely that. Others will point to the continued existence of stateless Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria. But at what point does their statelessness become an issue for their host governments to deal with? Is it the fourth generation born on Lebanese soil? The fifth generation born in Syria? Will Syria even exist as a state by this time? Wouldn’t they have Palestinian passports by that time anyway since Palestine has been recognized as a state? But a demand for the right for the wholesale entry of millions of third and fourth generations of people born in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan with Jordanian or Palestinian passports raised on a steady diet of hating Jews and Israel? Laughable.
There will be those that will scream about a double standard and point to the Israeli Law of Return that grants all Jews citizenship upon reaching Israel. So what? Let them scream. Israel as a sovereign state gets to set its own immigration policy, but of course Israel’s existence as a sovereign state is precisely the ‘problem’ for people that will make this argument. Alas, such a call makes less and less sense as the numbers of refugees that might have some memories of their previous homes shrinks. What sense is there in a young man demanding to ‘return’ to the four different long non-existent villages his four different grandparents might have come from? Or, a demand by a young woman of a ‘right’ to ‘return’ to the village on which now stands an Israeli town her paternal great-grandmother came from while forgetting that the rest of her ancient family are from a different part of the world entirely? Would she be demanding an eighth right of return in this case? Absent the thin veneer of respectability granted by pictures of old people with even older keys the whole issue rapidly transforms into a transparent opposition to the existence of Israel. Within the context of any likely future negotiations such a right is unlikely to get much of a hearing.
For obvious reasons in 20 years whether the now 77-year old Abu Mazen wants to live in Safed in a future peace agreement is unlikely to arouse much of a political storm in Palestinian discourse. Those in whose name the current crop of Palestinian politicians are offended will long be gone as well. Nor will it matter much whether the Palestinian leader at the time thinks that the Palestinians missed an opportunity in responding to the 1947 partition plan. The Israeli generation that was alive during that war will too entirely pass from the scene. These will simply cease to have any meaning as issues. This is healthy for all concerned. The Palestinians can focus on practical issues like building an even more sovereign state than they have been recognized to have by the UN and the Israelis can finally have Palestinian negotiating partners whose people aren’t obsessed with 1948. Perhaps only then would a peace agreement be possible.
Let’s go even further out. In 2048, 100 years after the Israeli War of Independence, is the ongoing debate still going to be about who did what to whom in 1948? For comparison’s sake, in 1912 the Titanic sank and Italy captured Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Water, meet bridge.