Book review: The War of Return

November 6th, 2020

The following is ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim’s book review of ‘The War of Return’ by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf.


For decades western peacemakers and commentators shook their heads in disbelief as Palestinian leaders rejected offer after offer for the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state over the equivalent of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the predominantly Arab neighbourhoods in eastern Jerusalem.  The Palestinians, they concluded, were making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf in the ‘War of Return’, this focus on the territorial aspects of the Israel-Palestinian conflict misses the point.  Far more problematic in their view is the Palestinians’ conception of themselves as “refugees” who have a “right of return” to “their homes” located within the State of Israel.

Palestinian leaders and the UN Relief and Works Agency have nourished the conviction of generations of Palestinians that their land was “stolen”, and that they each have a private legal right to live in Israel.

The Palestinian leadership have thereby painted themselves into a corner.  They cannot now present their people with any peace proposal, no matter how generous it may be in territorial terms, that does not guarantee each and every Palestinian “refugee” the option of exercising this “right”.

The Palestinians know perfectly well that with more than 5 million people now officially registered as “Palestine refugees”, this is a demand to which Jewish Israelis cannot accede without ceasing to be a majority in their own land, and committing national suicide.

Indeed, as the authors reveal in their impressively detailed but very readable historical survey, that is precisely why the Palestinians pursue this demand.  While professing to have made an “historic compromise” in which they are prepared to settle for 22% of the territory of Palestine under the British Mandate, they do not see any such outcome as the end of the conflict.

Instead, it would be a first step in liquidating any kind of Jewish sovereignty and statehood in the region, and reversing decades of international endorsement of the principle of two States for two peoples, a principle the Palestinians have always opposed.

This book is not a partisan Zionist diatribe.  The authors, who come from Israel’s political left, painstakingly pick apart each layer of mythology on which the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israel is founded.

Far from being colonialist usurpers, the Jews of Israel are exercising their internationally-endorsed right of national self-determination.  Jewish polities and state institutions had existed in the land for more than a millennium until the first century CE; yet no Palestinian state or other political entity identifying itself specifically as the polity of the Palestinian people existed anywhere at any time until the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 under an agreement with Israel.

It was not the 1947 UN resolution to partition the land that displaced 700,000 Palestinians, but rather their leaders’ initiation of a war seeking to prevent partition, as they frankly acknowledged at the time.

Fewer than one percent of those registered as Palestinian refugees have ever lived the refugee experience of fleeing from their homes in former Palestine.  The rest are the descendants of refugees, and many of them are natives of other countries and enjoy full citizenship rights or permanent residency in other countries.  The notion of refugee status being inherited automatically and passed down in perpetuity to remote descendants who have never fled from their homes is without parallel in international law. This automaticity in perpetuating refugee status in one’s descendants ad infinitum is not applied to, nor is it claimed by, any other refugee group.

UN General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) does not confer a “right of return” upon the Palestinians, as they now claim. The words “right of return” do not appear in resolution 194; the resolution is not legally binding; its language is not mandatory; a return of refugees can occur only if “permitted” by Israel, and only if the returnees wish “to live at peace with their neighbours”.

Significantly, all six Arab League countries then represented at the UN voted against resolution 194.  Yet the Arab states and the Palestinians now demand that Israel comply with a UN resolution which they themselves rejected, and which they have subsequently sought to reinterpret for their own purposes in order to overcome the reasons for their rejection.

The authors note that some 800,000 Jews from Arab countries were made refugees when they were expelled after 1948.  Most of them were absorbed by Israel.  The authors point to comparable refugee situations involving much larger refugee populations which were resolved when all parties accepted an exchange of populations resulting from military conflict as a fait accompli.

The authors argue that Arab governments and Palestinian leaders should do likewise, especially as they bear the primary responsibility both for initiating the war which displaced the Palestinians and for the expulsion of the Jewish refugees and confiscation of their assets.

Finally, the authors highlight the difference between the Jewish and Palestinian conceptions of national “return”. Jews returning to Israel have never claimed to be exercising a private legal right as refugees. Rather, they have claimed a collective right of national self-determination which entitles Jews, wherever they may live, to return to their ancient homeland, now the State of Israel.  Israel has long accepted that Palestinians too have a collective right of national self-determination which would entitle them, wherever they may live, to return to a future State of Palestine, but not to Israel.

This book should be read by everyone interested in getting to the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  The normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan which occurred shortly after the book was published have made its insights even more compelling.

Peter Wertheim is the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry