"IT'S DEJA VU all over again," the much-cited quotation from former New York Yankee baseball player Yogi Berra, provides an accurate description of current discussions surrounding refugees and the role they continue to play within the conundrum that is the Middle East peace process, a 52-year process that remains unresolved. With the issue of Palestinian refugee resettlement still a major stumbling block, any solution to this puzzle must be based upon an understanding of the ways in which societies, throughout history, have dealt with the issue of refugees.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "refugee" as "A person who flees usually to another country for refuge, especially from invasion, oppression, or persecution." Under that definition, there are countless millions of individuals who would qualify, be they Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jew, and on and on. In turn, imperialism, colonialism, war, and even peace agreements have defined and redefined the global map based upon political realities, not necessarily the humanitarian concerns of people in danger.
Refugees usually share a limited number of possible fates: They may be absorbed by a host country, languish in camps, or, eventually, return to their home countries. Without making a moral judgment, the structure of the global system often dictates little compromise regarding these outcomes, as the needs of the nation almost always triumph over those of the individual. An influx of large numbers of refugees into any present-day nationcannot help but cause the kinds of disruption that create political instability and, sometimes, additional refugees.
But what about the Palestinians? Time and again we hear about the right of the approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is present-day Israel. Is there a solution to their plight? Some history is in order before we can attempt to answer such questions.
Under the partition plan for Palestine that was approved by the United Nations in 1947, separate Arab and Jewish states were to be created. The area under Jewish control would have included approximately 850,000 Palestinian Arabs. Since the Jewish population of Palestine at the time was approximately 650,000, this would have meant a majority Arab population. The Zionist leaders accepted this reality.
The Arab world, unfortunately, did not and went to war against the nascent state. The Arabs expected a quick victory, which they failed to achieve. Instead, the Arab states were defeated, no Palestinian Arab state was created, and about 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees. (In turn, a corresponding number of Jewish residents of Arab countries were forced to leave their homes in the years following the 1948 war).
In armistice negotiations and through the years, Israel repeatedly proclaimed a readiness to deal with the refugee issue within the framework of direct negotiations with her Arab neighbors as well as the indigenous Palestinian leadership, a condition the Arabs repeatedly rejected until 1991.
Now, within the context of the recently failed Camp David summit, the press has reported that Arab and Israeli leaders have accepted the notion that any final settlement regarding refugees should acknowledge that both Arabs and Jews lost land and personal property and that both are due compensation.
In dealing with current problems surrounding the issue of Palestinian refugees, much can also be learned from reviewing how Jewish refugees were treated over time. The term "Wandering Jew," has symbolized the eternal predicament of Jews; in essence, since their dispersion from Palestine in 70 AD, they have been the "perpetual refugees."
Not until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was sovereignty restored to the Jewish people. Yet of the world's 14 million Jews, just over one-third live in the Jewish state, the rest having been absorbed by their host countries. This is, in fact, the dominant pattern. As noted earlier, political conditions usually dictate the impossibility of returning to a historically preferred population mix. But again, when it comes to Jews and Arabs, history, in a destructive and tragic way, reasserts itself.
Arab League ministers at their meeting on Sept. 3 said Israel bore "legal, moral and political responsibility" for Palestinian refugees. They went on, eerily echoing similar cries from the 1930s and 1940s, to call "on the countries where Jewish emigration comes from, especially Cuba, Poland, Romania and the Russian Federation, to make efforts to stop this emigration to Israel."
As a further reminder of how refugees become the pawns of history, look to the recent memorial service on the Black Sea that honored the 778 Romanian Jews and crew members who died in 1942 when a Russian submarine sank their disabled ship, the Struma.
Those Jews left Romania for Palestine in December 1941 to flee fascist persecution. The British refused to allow them entry, and neither Turkey nor anyone else would allow them to disembark. They were stateless refugees and that led to their destruction. A similar fate awaited all too many Jews fleeing from Hitler's wrath. Have no lessons been learned?
Yes, too many Jews for far too long had no place to return to. Yes, the Palestinian Arabs have suffered as pawns of the Arab countries, and from the world's moral blindness. Now it is time to help as many of these refugees as possible. But only by injecting a heavy dose of realism into the situation can substantive progress be made.
Israeli leaders seem prepared to offer some Palestinian refugees the right of return under the rubric of "family reunification." Others are to be compensated. It is at this point that the international community must do its part. Solutions are possible if pragmatism is the guiding posture.
To demand everything is to receive almost nothing, and is a path designed to keep the region in turmoil. We risk a sad deja vu: as history has usually shown to be the case, the refugees will again be the major losers.
Arthur C. Abramson is executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council and received his doctorate in political science from UCLA. He has taught courses in Middle East politics in California and at local universities.