Book Review of The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf
What do you get when a disillusioned Israeli politician from the political “Left” links up with a veteran Israeli journalist, also from the political “Left,” to take on the issue of Palestinian refugees, a key element for Middle East peace? Answer: Israeli Hasbara (public diplomacy propaganda) on steroids, with about one-third more words than necessary.
This was my immediate reaction while reading the newly released book The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf. I try to not judge a book by its cover, but its back cover is a different story. Having now read the book, I can confidently claim that this book can be judged by its three back cover endorsements.
The first endorsement is by Benjamin Shapiro, an American conservative political commentator and former Breitbart News editor who penned as far back as in 2003 that “Here is the bottom line: If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution.” (Transfer is not a dirty word, Townhall.com).
The second is by Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and journalist who panders to Western ears. Mr. Halevi is a conniving writer who excels in camouflaging Israel’s military occupation and his status as a settler living in an illegal settlement in Jerusalem.
The third endorsement comes from none other than Benny Morris. In the article “Israeli historian Benny Morris doubles down on his advocacy for ethnic cleansing,” Jonathan Ofir writes that “the Israeli historian who has documented Israeli-Palestinian history so meticulously, is again bemoaning that a full ethnic cleansing was not completed in 1948.” (Mondoweiss, Jan. 18, 2019).
The book is a long-winded frontal attack on Palestinian refugees and reads more as a commissioned assignment from the Hasbara-hub called the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs rather than a truly deep analysis of the issue of Palestinian refugees. If one removes the one-third of the book that is repetitive and honking the state horn, you are left with a third of extremely selective references and statements that attempt to build a seemingly non-controversial case against Palestinian refugees right to return and the international agency overseeing them. The last third comprises of rather useful facts and figures, along with an extensive bibliography that encompasses a chunk of the body of knowledge on the subject matter.
What is missing from the book is as important as what is in it. The missing third is all the other references that Palestinians’ Right of Return is based on, above and beyond the single one, UN General Assembly 194, that the authors pin their entire argument around. More on this below.
The book was originally written in Hebrew. The English publisher’s website notes that the book was a “runaway bestseller in Israel, the first English translation of The War of Return is certain to spark lively debate throughout America and abroad.” I am not sure how many sparks it will produce, but I am happy that it allows us to put Palestinian refugees, and how they became refugees, in the spotlight again.
The book dwells on the assumption that Israel accepted the UN Partition Plan, General Assembly Resolution 181, and the Arabs did not. So now, in their analysis, anything goes by Israel, and Palestinians need to just get over it. The authors use their agenda-based wordsmithing by writing that “…partition would have meant that out of the 11.5 million square kilometers encompassed by Arab states at the time, many of which were also set in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, some fifteen thousand square kilometers (one one-thousandth) would be allocated to the Jewish people…”. How convenient it must be to compare apples with oranges, lumping all Arab states in one bucket, and comparing it to a single intended “state” that became Israel.
There is no space here to do justice to why Arabs rightly said “No” in 1947 but an excellent write up on the issue may be found here by the American researcher Natasha Gill, The Original “No”: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters (Middle East Policy Council).
Whereas the authors make a major deal about Arab rejection of General Assembly Resolution 181, treating it as a sacred text, they dismiss another General Assembly Resolution, 194, that deals with the Right of Return, making the case that it was merely a General Assembly Resolution that was non-binding. On one page, a General Assembly resolution is a justification for aggression and on another, it has zero relevance because it is a General Assembly resolution.
The co-authors claim to have discovered the silver bullet to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency created in December 1949 to support the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees, and make it clear to the Palestinians, once and for all, that a return of refugees back to Israel (whatever the boundaries the authors imply) will never happen.
From the outset, it is already clear that the authors have a very political agenda.
Adi Schwartz is a Tel Aviv-based independent freelance journalist with over a decade of experience in leading Israeli and international media outlets. He is a former staff writer for Israeli English newspaper Haaretz and worked for Israel Hayom and is now finishing his doctorate in conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University.
Einat Wilf is a Jerusalem-born, Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party (2010–2011) and Independence Party (2011–2013). She completed her conscription as an Intelligence Officer in the infamous Unit 8200 with the rank of Lieutenant. She then went to Harvard University, receiving a BA in government and fine arts, before earning an MBA from INSEAD in France, and subsequently a Ph.D. in political science at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. She served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and was a strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company. She wrote in an article titled “Zionism: The Only Way Forward” (The Daily Beast, July 13, 2017) that “I am a Zionist because I am an atheist and a Jew.”
Like so many other self-proclaimed Zionists, the authors seem to totally absolve this ideology from any historic responsibility for planning and executing a strategy that was aware well in advance that dispossessing Palestinians from the land was the byproduct of their premeditated intentions and actions.
Having just read and reviewed two relative books on the matter, I would encourage the authors to become better grounded in their own ideology’s history by reading the works of three professional historians and scholars, all of which happen to be Jewish and two Israeli: What is Modern Israel? by Yakov M. Rabkin, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron by Israeli professor Menachem Klein, and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe.
In retrospect, the book’s foreword also gave away its Hasbara slant. In the first paragraph the authors write, “Despite the horrific suicide attacks perpetrated by Palestinians on Israeli civilians following the signing of Oslo, and the assassination of Rabin, Israelis kept hoping for peace.” Note how attacks are attributed specifically to all Palestinians, whereas the assassination of a sitting Israeli prime minister is merely a tacked-on phrase, generic at best, assumed undertaken by Palestinians at worst. The authors gave themselves away early on by being unable to identify the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, a Jewish Israeli ultranationalist named Yigal Amir and a product of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, the same Israeli educational institution as one of the authors attends.
On the subject of Palestinian refugees, the authors expose the equivalent of discovering in the year 2020 that the sun rises from the East, by acknowledging that the Palestinians are serious about the right of return for their refugees. “What we discovered actually surprised us both. While hiding in plain sight for decades, one of the core issues in the conflict had been almost totally absent from the consciousness of both Israelis and peace-makers around the world.” They go on, “The issue of Palestinian refugees, and the Arab and Palestinian demand that those refugees be allowed to exercise what they call a “right of return,” attracts scant attention.” Can they be serious? The entire Palestinian national liberation movement (PLO) started as a movement of refugees, long before the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
Couching text in this biased way is not new; it is the hallmark of Israeli Hasbara, much of which has been taken for granted by a well-meaning Jewish Diaspora who would be unable to fathom knowing Israel as it truly is. Israelis themselves have been indoctrinated since childhood to not see the Other as explained in this recent Haaretz article, “In Israel, Indoctrination Starts in Kindergarten” by Noa Limone (Haaretz, Jan. 26, 2020).
Another passage that made this reading a false-start was, “The Palestinian conception of themselves as ‘refugees from Palestine,’ and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews.” I ask if Palestinians are not refugees from “Palestine,” then where were they living before Israel was established, the moon!? And why this obsession with making the repeated argument throughout the book that Palestinians have a grudge against anything Jewish. Nothing could be further from the truth. The political ideology of Zionism, on the other hand, is the ultimate hurdle Israelis must overcome to have any chance of being accepted in the region. Again, I encourage the authors to read the books I noted above.
The book uses a fancy referencing ploy. It extensively footnotes passages using Palestinian sources but being extremely selective and ignoring these sources’ substantive arguments and instead tries to give the impression that even the Palestinians are clear in supporting the authors’ arguments, even if unknowingly. One of these references is to Jaber Suleiman, a Palestinian expert on Refugee Studies, UNRWA, and Protection of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Jaber lives in Sidon, in southern Lebanon and happens to be a friend and a colleague. A simple Google search would have given the authors access to Suleiman’s detailed research about Palestinian refugees and their rights.
The more interesting blind spot of the book is its hyperfocus on a single paragraph (№11) of a single UN General Assembly resolution from 1948 (№194) which calls for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees. The authors want the reader to believe that this is the only reference that is relevant here and make the case that the resolution is flawed, thus removing any “Right” of Palestinian refugees to return home. Any mention of other parts of international law are made only in passing and with the sole goal of absolving Israel from any responsibility whatsoever, be it in creating, even partially, the refugee crisis, or refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to return after the establishment of Israel and the passing of 72 years.
Interestingly, and in perfect style, the authors use an authoritative Palestinian reference multiple times, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Negotiation Affairs Department (NAD). Could it be the authors missed this department’s website? I highly doubt it. NAD prominently lists on their website the text of paragraph 11 of Resolution 194, but it also lists much more on the same page. It states:
“The right of return for our refugees also is well-established under other international law, including:
· The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948): “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (Art. 13(2)).
· The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country” (Art. 12(4)).
· The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons: “All Refugees and displaced persons have the right to voluntarily return to their former homes, lands or places of habitual residence, in safety and dignity” (Art. 10.1)… “Refugees and displaced persons should be able to effectively pursue durable solutions to displacement other than return, if they so wish, without prejudicing their right to the restitution of their housing, land and property” (Art. 10.3).”
Try to find a detailed analysis of these other parts of international law in the book and you will come up empty-handed. They are all brushed away as irrelevant, as is common sense and decency.
The book totally ignores the powerhouse Palestinian civil society movement that brought the rights of Palestinian refugees front and center, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS). The BDS movement launched in 2005 after the clear failure of the Oslo process. It has globally raised three crystal clear demands from Israel:
“The Palestinian BDS call urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194 [emphasis added]”
I guess noting number three of these demands and acknowledging the resounding success the BDS movement has had worldwide is too inconvenient of a fact, so the authors simply ignored it. They were more interested in making the case that the Palestinians are somehow hiding their real interest in their refugees returning to their homes.
Timing is also used in a premeditated fashion. The authors take statements made in the 1950s, for example, and speak of them in the context of today. A point in case is a single quote by Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi. Using a quote from Khalidi, the authors make another discovery of the sun, “This [Khalidi] admission is the heart of the matter: instead of being a legal or humanitarian issue, then and now, the refugee problem is first and foremost a political problem, reflecting the desire to dominate the entire land.” A “political problem!” How novel. Could it be Palestinians have a separate UN agency for their refugees because this body of refugees was a “politically” motivated one by a direct act of the UN itself, and not one that emerged in the course of a natural disaster or even war?
Those darn facts
At points, it does seem that the authors are trying the best they can to humanize their arguments, such as when they write, “In theory, of course, the Palestinians’ right to self- determination is entirely compatible with the parallel right of the Jewish people to self- determination.” But they can only humanize Palestinians if it is tucked under a false symmetry with the “Jewish people.” The fact of the matter is that there is no symmetry, not in “self-determination” nor in trying to conflate Judaism with Zionism. That noted, the Palestinians formally recognized the State of Israel, but even that major Palestinian political concession is brushed aside by the authors as not being genuine.
Indeed, you will not find anything in this book about Israeli actions over the past seven decades. Nothing about the Palestinian villages of Ikrit and Biram inside of Israel, where internally displaced Palestinians are refused the right to return even after Israel’s High Court ruled that they have the right to. Nothing about the Israeli settlement enterprise which eats away at the land and resources earmarked for Palestine, one of the locations that the authors themselves hope many Palestinian refugees would return to instead of Israel. Nothing about the building of an illegal Separation Wall effectively wiping away the Green Line. Nothing about past and present acts of unilateral annexation by Israel, making the two-state solution more difficult by the hour, and this from authors who claim to be supporters of a two-state solution. All of Israel’s strategic mishaps are conveniently regulated to unavoidable errors in the “heat of the battle,” a battle it seems that only one side was allowed to feel the “heat” and make mistakes.
However, I must give credit to the authors for revealing tidbits of interesting research about the course of events over the past seven decades, missteps in Palestinian strategies, and flaws in UNRWA. The latter is something that has been very known and public for many years and is under continuous structural repair without trying to use UNRWA or Palestinian refugees as pawns in some sick geopolitical game.
All in all, this book serves as a blueprint for actions already started by the Trump Administration to dismantle UNRWA, starting with strangulating it financially. Although the book and Trump (actually the U.S.) aim for the same goal, the authors make clear that how the Trump Administration is operating is “a tragically lost opportunity.” Thus, they compete in who has the “far better and more effective policies that would dismantle UNRWA.”
Upon further reflection on this book, I feel it is the equivalent of two defense lawyers making an argument for the dismissal of the case of a cold-blooded murderer, a person who took the lives of his victims in broad daylight, in front of their family members, and all of it videotaped. The lawyers — in this case, the authors — latch on for life or death to minute legal technicalities to free their client, preferring to ignore rather than understand comprehensively that their client is a serious threat to public wellbeing. It seems that they will learn the hard way that The International Court of Justice in The Hague does not operate like the Tel Aviv District Court.
I end with how I began my 2011 TEDxRamallah talk which was titled, Refugees Waiting. Peace in the Middle East — when I hear these words I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, however, I do know one thing for sure: The key to peace in the Middle East is the returning home of displaced Palestinians — whether refugees, exiles or diaspora.