NEWS FEATURE: "Right to return" biggest stumbling block to peace

On a visit to Ireland this week Ben-Dror Yemini, a former political adviser turned Israeli journalist, agreed to a questions and answers session with the Irish Examiner on Israeli/Arab relations and events in the the wider middle east.

Ben-Dror Yemini is the opinion editor of the Tel Aviv based daily newspaper, Maariv. A former political adviser his book, Political Punch, is a critique of politics and society in Israel. He has published numerous articles about the Israeli-Arab conflict in which he has argued for a “two peoples two states solution” to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and suggested that "anti-Zionism is politically correct anti-Semitism". He spoke to the Irish Examiner in advance of an address at Univesity College Cork. 

Dolan O’Hagan: I am going to cut to the chase with my opening question Ben-Dror. In the eyes of many Irish people the attitude of the Israeli leadership in relation to its various border conflicts mirror those seen in some unionist leaders in the north of Ireland prior to the peace process there, i.e. an intransigent "we have what we hold" attitude and a determined unwillingness to compromise. How do you respond to that charge?

Ben-Dror Yemini: The comparison is completely false. Historically, the Arabs rejected any peace plan based on the most acceptable settlement of two states for two peoples. It began with the Partition Resolution, 1947, that was rejected by all the Arab countries. It continued with the three "NO's" of the Khartoum Arab summit, immediately after the Six Days War in 1967. Getting into current history, Arafat rejected the Clinton peace plan at the end of 2000, and Mahmoud Abbas rejected the Olmert plan at 2008. Both plans gave the Palestinians a sovereign state. So let's not repeat the lie, but stand for the truth: Again and again the Palestinians rejected a fair and decent solution.

Q. The causes and motivations of all sides in the various conflicts which Israel are involved are well ventilated. What is less clear is solutions. In general terms what is your view then on what needs to be done to achieve lasting peace and stability in the region?

A. The conflict is not as complicated as people guess. The international community, and most Israelis, know the solution. It will be based around the guidelines of Clinton Peace Plan, ie., two states for two peoples. The moment the Palestinians will have a brave leadership, that will recognize it, peace will prevail. Unfortunately, The Palestinians insist on the "right of return" (to Israel, and not only to their own future state), and this means the destruction of Israel.

Q. Staying with the Israel/Palestinian conflict. You are quoted as being a long-time believer in the two-state solution but have made it clear you believe Israel should have the same right of self-determination as the Palestinians. Can you briefly elaborate on the second part of that statement.

A. Historically, "Palestinian people" or "Palestinian state" never existed. But the Palestinians have the right for self determination, like any other people on earth. With only one condition: alongside Israel, and not on the expense of Israel.

Q. Turing to the first part of that statement. Can you explain your understanding of a two state solution and, more importantly, what you feel are the main barriers to it being achieved.

A. The main barrier is the intransigent demand for the "right of return" to Israel itself. We all should remember two fundamental facts: First, 52 million people were forced out of their homelands as a result of wars after World War 2, when new borders were defined and new states were established, none of these people received the "right of return". Second, 850,000 Jews were forced out from Arab states (comparing to 711,000 Arabs), because of the same conflict. The difference is that only the Palestinians are perpetuated as refugees. Not because of Israel but "as a winning card for the extermination of Israel", as they admit. So time has come to finish with the fantasy of "right of return", i.e., the extermination of Israel. Many Palestinians understand it, Unfortunately, not their leadership. Not yet.

Q. Staying with leadership. It is clear that Palestinians do not see America as a suitable peace broker. Who do you feel would be the most suitable brokers of a lasting peace in the region and do you think Ireland could play a role in that process?

A. The problem is not the broker. The solution is on the table. It will not be easy for many Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is a brave leadership, in both sides.

Q. Staying with Ireland. As a nation are we not better qualified than any other to achieve reconciliation of this nature.

A. The Middle-East has a very bad experience with international involvement. The EU and EU countries, including Ireland, finance NGO's that support the "right of return", for example. Do they give any support to the German NGO that support "right of return" of ethnic Germans to Poland or Hungary? We know that your help is based supposedly on "human rights". The result is counterproductive. You perpetuate the problem instead of to solve the problem.

Q. Finally with regard to Israel/Arab relations. As you visit Ireland what would your underlying message be to all those in Europe who are concerned but remain objective about what is happening in the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

A. My message is simple: face reality, don't ignore facts and information that does not fit your agenda and opinions.

Q. Turning to the wider region can I ask if you are more optimistic about general peace, stability and prosperity for ordinary people following the momentous events of recent years.

A. I do what I do just because I believe in a decent solution, for both sides. I'm pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, and pro-peace. But peace will not be achieved with lies and incitement and mis-information. That's why I'm trying to look, first, to facts, and only then to conclusions.

Q. Staying with the facts. It appears to me that "Islamic fundamentalism" is a very much overused term in western media. But if one assumes that "fundamental" muslim beliefs do lead to violent repercussions throughout the globe what do you feel needs to happen to ensure such violence ends.

A. The term "Islamic fundamentalism" is not overused. If anything it is under estimated. We should all bare in mind that 99% of the victims of the Islamic fundamentalism are Muslims themselves - in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Algeria and so on. They are ignored, because we judge the whole area - culture, countries and religion - according to lower standards. They pay a very high price, in human lives, because the west is obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should all wake up and look at the big picture, and not ignore it.

Q. Finally on the middle east. In one sentence can I ask you to describe what you feel is the biggest barrier to lasting peace and stability in the region.

A. End the fantasies about "Great Israel", "Great Palestine" and "right of return", and (promote) brave leadership that will tell the peoples that the solution is achievable.

Q. To conclude on a more personal note. Your career has spanned both the political and the journalistic spheres so what would you say to those who have become disenchanted and sceptical of the role and motivations of both in society?

A. The main problem is that most of us, mainly journalists, are lazy. Many times we give the public what they want, instead of real knowledge and valid facts and the broad picture. In my very limited power I'm trying to make a difference. It's not easy. 


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