From time to time we see the argument made that a reasonable compromise on the Palestinian ‘right of return’ would be for Israel to accept the ‘right’ of the Palestinians to return, without it being ‘realized':
We, the Jews, also do not surrender, nor can we surrender, our rights to the historic holdings of our forefathers in Hebron, Shilo, and Anatot. But the majority of Israelis are willing to relinquish the right to realize Jewish sovereignty and Jewish settlement at those Biblical sites, in proportion to Palestinian concessions. The vast majority of Palestinians are clearly aware that it is impossible for millions of refugees to return to their homes and land in Jaffa, Ramle, and Haifa.
Everyone knows that this is Israel’s red line. In an endless number of deliberations of a solution to the refugee problem and proposed solutions, a formula was suggested which would divide the “right of return” into two terms: “Right” and “return.” The right exists; it is not subject to appeal, nor is the somewhat problematic wording of UN Resolution 194, which recognizes that right, subject to appeal. But practical return to the geographic domain of the State of Israel is not feasible. Danny Rubinstein in Ha’aretz
There are several things wrong with this far too-clever formulation. For one, it is irrational to tell someone that he has a right to something, but in the same breath that he is forbidden from realizing it. What is the meaning of ‘right’ in this case?
Here in the United States there was a situation for many years in which blacks had the ‘right’ to vote, but were forbidden from exercising this right. People struggled and even gave their lives so that these rights could be realized, and ultimately they were.
Another problem is that granting this ‘right’, whether or not it is realized, implies that the Palestinian narrative that the land of Israel belongs to them, not to the present residents, is true. Is constitutes an admission that Jews do not have the ‘right’ to live there. Are we prepared to say “we are thieves, but the true owners are forbidden to take back their property?” Do we believe this?
And from a practical point of view: once we agree that they have a right to return, what argument do we use to prevent them from returning? “It would destroy the Jewish character of the state” might be meaningful to us, but who else would accept it? And why should they?
Indeed, this ‘compromise’ is not a compromise, it is a complete surrender in principle with the proviso that the physical surrender will take place at some later date.
Although Danny Rubinstein — who called Israel an ‘apartheid state’ at a UN conference in Brussels — is a particularly loose cannon, this idea has appeared in other circles as well.
It is to be hoped that Israeli leaders do not adopt this as a way to deal with Palestinian demands for a right of return at the November peace conference. They should make it quite clear that Jews live in Israel with full legitimacy and ownership of the land that they live on, and that there is no Palestinian ‘right of return’, realizable or otherwise.