a blueprint for international instability

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    By Shlomo Avineri
    The Jerusalem Post
    July 17, 2003

    A blueprint for international instability

    The atmosphere could not have been more tranquil: a former royal castle in the rolling hills of the Taunus region near Frankfurt, hosting an annual meeting, sponsored by a German foundation, of statesmen and politicians dealing with Middle Eastern problems. Europeans and Americans, Israelis and Iranians, Egyptians and Turks, Palestinians and Tunisians rubbed shoulders.

    This year there was a novelty: representatives from post-Saddam Iraq, among them an official from the Kurdish Regional Government as well as a high-ranking Shi'ite representative.

    The new situation in Iraq, as well as the Middle East road map, were naturally at the center of attention, and were most knowingly addressed on the opening night by a senior German government minister, himself deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs, with great sensitivity to Israeli as well as Palestinian concerns. The evening proceeded along the expected trajectory, until a Lebanese academic raised the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

    The senior German minister listened attentively, and then said: "This is an issue with which we in Germany are familiar; may I ask my German colleagues in the audience to raise their hand if they, or their families, were refugees from Eastern Europe?"

    There was a moment of silence - the issue is embarrassing in Germany, fraught with political and moral landmines. Slowly, hands were raised: by my count, more than half the Germans present (government officials, journalists, businessmen) raised a hand: they, or their families, had been Vertriebene, expelled from their ancestral homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia after World War II.

    It is estimated that up to 10 million were expelled; with their descendants today they make up almost double that number - almost one in four Germans.

    Amid the hush the German senior minister continued: He himself was born in Eastern Europe and his family was expelled in the wake of the anti-German atmosphere after 1945. "But," he added, "neither I nor any of my colleagues claim the right to go back.

    "It is precisely because of that that I can now visit my ancestral hometown and talk to the people who live in the house in which I was born - because they do not feel threatened, because they know I don't want to displace them or take their house."

    The minister went on to explain that peace in Europe is today embedded in this realization. Had Eastern European countries thought that millions of ethnic Germans would like to return, "the Iron Curtain would have never come down."

    It was a highly emotional response, one that Arab representatives chose later on to ignore. But it was just one more _expression of the context in which the issue of the 1948 Palestinian refugees has to be addressed.

    AS THE German senior minister reminded the audience, there are numerous parallels in recent history to the Palestinian refugee problem. Anyone who now argues that the 1948 Palestinian refugees have a claim, in principle, to return to Israel, has to confront the question: Why not the millions of German post-1945 expellees from Eastern Europe? The German minister supplied the answer.

    Moreover: Had a German government insisted in talks about reunification in 1990 that all German expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia have, in principle, a right to return to these countries, it would have been clear that what West Germany had in mind was not reunification, but undoing the consequences of Nazi Germany's defeat in 1945.

    This is exactly the meaning of the Palestinian demand for the right of return. The Palestinians' insistence on it at Camp David and Taba in 2000 made clear to most Israelis that what they have in mind is not undoing the consequences of 1967 - but undoing the consequences of their defeat in 1948.

    At that time, it should be recalled, Palestinian Arabs and four Arab members of the UN went to war - not only against Israel, but against international legitimacy and the UN plan for a two-state solution. There is no other example of member countries going to war against UN decisions; this is what the Arab countries - and the Palestinians - did. Obviously they prefer to forget it.

    Clearly there is a serious humanitarian issue involved. That the Palestinians' plight has been compounded by Arab use of the refugees as political pawns for half a century is a measure of the cynicism and immorality of Arab politics.

    Nonetheless, the humanitarian issue remains - and the German senior minister referred to it explicitly, both with regard to the Palestinians and to the German expellees.

    But for him the political consequences were clear: A return of refugees - in the German as well as the Palestinian case - is a call for instability, if not war.

    The author is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 
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