Jewish refugees are a ‘core’ peace process issue

The international community could bring a settlement closer by creating a fund to compensate refugees -- both Jews and Palestinians
Jewish refugees en route to Israel from Yemen in 1949
Jewish refugees en route to Israel from Yemen in 1949

It may come as a surprise to some observers that the saga of Jewish refugees exiled from Arab countries has been reinvigorated in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Why are Jewish voices being raised now?

Clearly, after 64 years, the time has come to achieve historic justice for Jewish refugees. Moreover, the still-unsolved problem has an important diplomatic application. Since the ill-fated Oslo peace process, the “refugee issue”– a core issue in the conflict between the PLO leadership and Israel — has been dominated by the Palestinian leadership’s claims on behalf of some 680,000 Arab refugees, who fled the fighting during the multi-front wars launched by Israel’s Arab neighbors to destroy the fledgling nation-state of the Jewish people in 1947-48 and in 1967.

Regretfully, the Palestinian leadership’s branding of the Palestinian refugees as the indigenous and sole aggrieved party has come to reinforce a fictitious yet cogent narrative that Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei promoted at the recent conference of non-aligned countries hosted in Tehran. Referring to Israel, he said:

An independent country with a clear historical identity called Palestine has been taken away from its people through the use of weapons, killing and deception and has been given to a group of people the majority of whom are immigrants from European countries.

This politically charged and distorted Palestinian narrative has overshadowed the parallel narrative and fundamental rights of some 860,000 Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent who were murdered, assaulted, robbed and forcibly exiled from Arab countries between 1948 and 1976. Two thirds of these Jewish exiles ended up in Israel, and one third in countries around the world. Today their descendants constitute a majority of Israel’s population.

Jewish refugees en route to Israel from Yemen in 1949
Jewish refugees en route to Israel from Yemen in 1949

Israeli and Jewish leaders may have been remiss in failing to assert Jewish refugee rights more prominently in the past. Today, however, the Israeli government’s initiative, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Deputy Minister Leah Ness, is seeking “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries.” While the United Nations has also failed to specifically recognize a fair symmetry of claims, Jewish refugee rights have remained protected.

The past 45 years of Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy have been rooted in the recognition of mutual rights and claims of Israel and its Arab neighbors, sanctioned by United Nations resolutions in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. Rights of refugees, both Palestinian Arab and Jewish, who had lost their homes and property — the former in what became the State of Israel and the latter in Arab countries during and following the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 — were equally protected by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 that called for “achieving a just settlement to the refugee problem”.

Ensuing peace processes, starting with the 1978 Camp David Accords, which committed Israel and Egypt to “a prompt, just, and permanent resolution of the implementation of the refugee problem,” also established the legal framework to resolve the matter. Similarly, the Madrid Peace Conference, the Oslo Accords, the Jordanian-Israeli treaty of peace and the Quartet-sponsored Road Map also refer to “resolving the refugee issue” without qualification. This intended general language protects the mutuality of legally and diplomatically sanctioned Palestinian Arab and Jewish refugee rights that today still define the context of final-status core peace issues, alongside future borders, security, settlements, and Jerusalem.

Former US president Bill Clinton specifically referred to the establishment of an international fund to address both sets of refugees immediately after the 2000 Camp David summit. He said:

There is I think some interest, interestingly enough on both sides, in also having a fund that compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of Jewish people who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon speaks at the 'Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries' conference in Jerusalem (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon speaks at the ‘Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries’ conference in Jerusalem (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

Former EU Middle East envoy Miguel Moratinos echoed Clinton’s comments during the Taba peace negotiations in 2001, noting regarding the refugee issue that ”both sides agreed to  the establishment of an international commission and an international fund as a mechanism for dealing with compensation in all of its aspects.”

The United States House of Representatives went even further than Clinton and Moratinos in passing legislation in 2008 that resolved “for any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement to be credible and enduring, the [peace] agreement must address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees, including Jews, Christians, and other populations, displaced from countries in the Middle East.”

Raising the Jewish refugee issue at this time may help solve what has been a seemingly intractable stumbling block to progress in the peace process. While the Palestinians refuse to negotiate with Israel, the international community can still act in order to resolve the refugee issue due to precedents in international agreements and international law. The immediate establishment of a “super fund” to compensate both sets of refugees can realistically eliminate one of the peace process’s core issues even before all others are resolved around the peace table, and perhaps lead to renewed negotiations.

About the Author
Dan Diker is ITEC’s international vice-chairman, and the former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.