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The Lost Element in Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations By: Chaim Herzog
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 02, 2003

The late Chaim Herzog, former Labour Party President of Israel, served as UN Ambassador in the 1970s.  This address lays out the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the sham of the Palestinian "refugee crisis" and the real obstacle to MidEast peace.  With the "Road Map" chiming familiar chords, FrontPage Magazine thought this slightly abridged version of Herzog's UN speech deserved a fresh reading. - Ed.

AFTER World War I the League of Nations confirmed the ancient historic and religious rights of the Jewish people in the Holy Land. The re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (under a British Mandate) was welcomed by, among others, leaders of the Arab resurgence, who recognized that there was room for one small Jewish state, within the total area of 4.5 million square miles in which the Arab nation has since realized its sovereignty in the form of twenty Arab states.

After World War II the General Assembly of the United Nations confirmed the inalienable right of the Jewish people to a state of its own in its ancient homeland, which would be divided into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish people formally accepted the famous resolution adopted by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947; the Arab nations rejected it out of hand. On May 15, 1948, with the conclusion of the British Mandate, seven Arab armies invaded Palestine with the avowed purpose of destroying the State of Israel in its infancy. Those Arab military operations were described in the Security Council by the then-Soviet delegate to the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, as "aimed at the suppression of a National Liberation Movement."

A small Jewish population, outnumbered and outgunned, fought back desperately and successfully, losing 1 percent of its total population in the process, and the State of Israel was secured. The groundless allegations, repeated again and again, by Arab spokesmen, about the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs constitute nothing, but a series of falsehoods. The Palestinian Arabs, as everybody who takes the trouble to read about those tragic days discovers, left their homes on the specific instructions of their leaders, who, incidentally, were the first to leave; They were promised that they would return in the wake of victorious Arab armies and inherit the spoil and the loot of the Jewish population, which would be annihilated and thrown into the sea.

A vivid description of that period appears in the memoirs of Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. He described the Arab assault on May 15, 1948, in unequivocal terms:

"During the next hours and days, events crowded upon us. The Arab states launched their invasion of Palestine with the end of the Mandate. This was clear aggression, and that. failure to meet it could easily lead to the ultimate downfall of the United Nations, just as the mishandling of the Manchurian and Ethiopian cases in the 1930's had led to the collapse of the League of Nations."(1)

It is obvious to all how the Arab-Israeli conflict started and which side was the aggressor in 1947-1948. There would not have been one single Arab refugee - not even one - had the Arab states not chosen to go to war in defiance of a United Nations resolution with the declared aim of destroying the newly reborn State of Israel.

The Palestinians themselves have written an entire literature describing those tragic days and the callous advice given by their leaders. For example, in the memoirs of Haled al-Azm, the Prime Minister of Syria in 1948 and 1949, which were published in Beirut, one can read his analyses of the reasons for the Arab failure in 1948:

"Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated between our call to them to leave. Only a few months separated between our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return." (Vol. I, pp. 386-87)

And writing in FaZastin al-Thawra (an official publication of the PLO) in March 1976, Abu Mazer, a member of the PLO executive committee, noted:

"The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians. .. . but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Eastern Europe."

Time and again, over the years, Israel offered to help rehabilitate the refugees, but the Arab states refused because they wanted to perpetuate the conflict and did not want to .lose this invaluable political pawn. For instance, Israel offered compensation for the refugees' property, but the Arab states would not hear of it, since this would have implied recognition of the State of Israel. Every proposal that Israel made over the years indicating a willingness for compromise was turned down by the Arabs.

However, there was also a second group of refugees which, together with the Palestinian Arab refugees, comprised the so-called Middle East refugee problem.

During the United Nations debate on the Partition Resolution of 1947, Arab leaders warned that the Jews in Arab countries would be used as hostages to prevent the establishment of .Israel. With the passage of the resolution and the establishment of Israel, these dire threats were carried out in Aden, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria, and elsewhere. Riots and pogroms, together with mass arrests and legislation confiscating the property of Jews, restricting their. employment and limiting their education and freedom of movement, were the order of the day in many Arab lands. As a result, more than 800,000 Jews fled those countries to Israel between 1948 and 1967.

Israel could have approached the question of the Jewish refugees in the same manner as the Arabs approached their part of the refugee problem. After all, the two populations displaced by the war were of approximately equal size. It could have kept the Jewish refugees as political pawns in camps financed by the United Nations. Instead, the Jewish people throughout the world cared for its refugees, transported them, rehabilitated them and re-established them as useful citizens and productive human beings.

The fundamentally different approach of Israel on the one hand and the Arab states on the other was also described at length by Trygve Lie:

"Israel's approach to its problem of Jewish refugees was strikingly in contrast. Hundreds of Jews were arriving daily, especially now from Arab lands. . . . The organization for receiving immigrants was most impressive. . . . I was impressed in Israel, both by the accomplishments and by the spirit behind them."(2)

Arab sources have also documented Arab responsibility for having expelled their Jewish citizens. In an article published in al- Nahar (Beirut) on May 15, 1975, Sabri Jiryis, a researcher with the Institute of Palestinian Studies in Beirut, observed:

"This is hardly the place to describe how the Jews of the Arab states were driven out of the countries in which they lived for hundreds of years, and how they were shamefully deported to Israel after their property had been confiscated or taken over at the lowest possible price.

". . . Since 1948, you Arabs have caused the expulsion of just as many Jews from the Arab states, most of whom settled in Israel after their properties had been taken over in one way or another. Actually, therefore, what happened was only a kind of "population and property exchange," and each party must bear the consequences. Israel is absorbing the Jews of the Arab states; the Arab states, for their part, must settle the Palestinians in their own midst and solve their problems..

"There is no doubt, at the first serious discussion of the Palestinian problem in an international forum, Israel will put these claims forward."

The Arab refugee problem does not differ from the many other refugee problems in our worked, except for the fact that it is the only major one that has not been resolved. In virtually all cases other refugee problems, infinitely larger in scope, have been solved through the resettlement and rehabilitation of the refugees with the help of suitable, financial arrangements. This is what happened, for example, after the Greek-Turkish conflict following World War I, after World War II in West Germany and elsewhere, after the Indian-Pakistan conflict of the early 1960s. None of these refugee problems, involving tens of millions of human beings, was resolved by attempting to repatriate the refugees, en masse, to the countries and homes from which they had fled.

The Arabs have deliberately kept the problem of the refugees alive for thirty years in order to use it as a political weapon in the struggle against Israel. The Arab world today disposes of an unprecedented glut of assets and resources which are employed for such purposes as the purchase of arms instead of the benefit of their kin-the Palestine Arab refugees. The time has therefore come for the United Nations to approach this problem by taking both sides into consideration.

Throughout the years when the Arabs demanded the return of the Arab refugees, they did not even bother to hide their true intentions. To cite one example, the following resolution was adopted by the "Refugee Conference" in Horns, Syria, on July 15, 1957:

"Any discussion aimed at a solution of the Palestine problem which will not be based on ensuring the refugees' right to annihilate Israel will be regarded as a desecration of the Arab people and an act of treason."

In contrast, Israel recently helped over six thousand Arab families to move out of refugee camps in Gaza, out of squalid, inhuman conditions into decent housing, which they acquired with their own earnings, supplemented by mortgages and loans ,from the Israeli government.

Other refugees in Gaza are clamoring, cash in hand, to enter such housing. Nevertheless, the United Nations General Assembly promptly adopted-by a vote of 119 to 1 with 4 abstentions-an Arab-inspired resolution calling on Israel to put the refugees back in the camps, to return them from homes with running water, electricity and gardens, to primitive, disease-infested hovels! (3)

It is important ,to remember again that 800,000 Jewish refugees were driven out of Arab countries where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years, contributing to the culture, the commerce, the science, the literature and the well-being of the countries of which they were part. The refugees left behind considerable wealth. Yet not one word of their rights, of their properties, is mentioned in any United Nations statement or resolution. In light of this, Israel cannot and will not, at any stage, consider valid any discussion of the refugee problem in the Middle East, if half of that problem, the Jewish refugee problem, is ignored. . . . 

Suggestions that the PLO be included in the Geneva negotiations attempt to impose preconditions as to participation in the Geneva Peace Conference and are irreconcilable with the letters of the co-chairmen of the conference dated December 18, 1973, and signed by Ambassador Yakob Malik for the USSR and Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., for the United States. Their two letters, communicated by the Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council, state:

"The parties have agreed that the Conference should proceed under the joint chairmanship of the Soviet Union and the United States. The parties have also agreed that the question of other participants from the Middle East area will be discussed during the first stage of the Conference."

This mechanism could have been activated at any time so that Israel could have commenced negotiations with the Arab States. Israel's position has always been crystal-clear: it desires and is pre- pared to compromise for peace, real peace between countries as the ordinary man in the street understands the word "peace."

Today we are told that President Sadat wants peace, and indeed, the logic of his situation militates for peace. He is urgently in need of development, of foreign investment, of economic and social consolidation. He can choose either war or development and investment, but he can't have both and he knows it. Sadat has said that if he considers that war is in Egypt's interest, he will go to war, and if peace is in Egypt's interest, he will make peace. In November 1977 President Sadat by his visit to Jerusalem chose to try peace, opening a period of long and difficult negotiations.

At the same time, a sinister process has evolved in the UN to destroy the existing mechanism for peace: in furtherance of this purpose, all the one-sided and baseless resolutions submitted by Arab and hostile delegations to the General Assembly have specifically eliminated the principles enumerated in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and above all, have eliminated any mention of the word "negotiation." This is in flagrant violation of Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, which requires that "the parties to any dispute.. . . shall. . . seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, etc. . . ." It is a terrifying, tragic and sobering thought to contemplate the fact that not one General Assembly resolution on the Middle East issue calls for the process of negotiation between the states which ale parties to the conflict. The reason is obvious: negotiations imply Israel's right to exist, and this would run counter to the Arab policy on the issue, the soothing sounds emanating from various capitals in the Middle East notwithstanding. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ismail Fahmy, openly threatened war as recently as September 28, 1977, in. the General Assembly, vilified Zionism and launched a new move to isolate Israel in the intemational arena. He went so far as to make peace conditional on an end to Jewish immigration to Israel. That is not the way to make peace.(4)

If the purpose of United Nations debates is to develop a process of negotiation and maintain the momentum of negotiation with out preconditions, the Israeli government will cooperate in every way as befits a self-respecting sovereign nation. If, however, the purpose is merely to pass one-sided resolutions and create a situation whereby the United Nations will attempt to impose a solution and dictate to one or other parties, then Israel will have no part in such a process.

The issue before the world today is whether or not it is going to allow the elements of violence, hate and intransigence to set the tone in the Middle East. . . .

Nobody has better summed up this issue than a former representative of the Soviet Union to the United Nations, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky, who on March 29, 1954, addressed the Security Council as follows:

"You can submit whatever resolutions you like. But life does not call for resolutions: it calls for decisions which can promote the settlement of important international questions which are s:till outstanding. What is the proper method for this? The method is that of direct negotiation between the interested parties. On the one side we have the representative.of. Israel and on the other the representative of Egypt; they are sitting opposite one another. Let them sit down together at one table and try to settle the questions which the Security Council cannot settle now. I am deeply convinced that they can find a better solution. That is why certain representatives and States show a stubborn disinclination to permit direct: negotiations between the interested parties and are trying to interfere in and, unfortunately, to hinder those negotiations."(5)

I have declared again and again that I am prepared to sit down with each and everyone of the UN ambassadors from the Arab countries in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Yet they have persistently refused even to talk to me, thereby providing an ominous indication of their real intentions. As long as the Arab representatives refuse to talk to us, it means that they do not recognize our right to exist. If they don't recognize our right to exist, then we are not disposed to accommodate them by sitting still in the territories and awaiting their pleasure.( 6)

Israel is prepared to enter into negotiations at any moment without any preconditions whatsoever, and in such negotiations, all states will be free to make whatever proposals they wish to make. But we will negotiate only on the basis of a recognition of Israel's sovereign rights. We will not negotiate our own suicide, for that is what withdrawal without concrete moves towards peace means.

Peace can be achieved as soon as it is recognized that while the question of the Palestinian Arabs is an important part of the Middle East conflict, it is not its core. At the heart of an Arab-Israeli conflict lies not the question of finding a satisfactory solution to the problem of territories that came under Israeli administration as a result of Arab aggression in 1967.

You may solve all of the problems raised publicly today and not yet solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, because at the core of the conflict lies the Arab refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish nation to self-determination and national sovereignty in at least a part of its ancient homeland-a homeland that was never in history considered a homeland by any other people; a homeland that the Jewish people has inhabited continuously and without interruptions for the last four millennia. Unless and until the Arabs recognize Israel's right-and I repeat, right-to exist (rather than, as one Arab leader declared, as a fact because it is not in their reach to destroy Israel militarily), durable peace will not come in the Middle East.

This is not only an Israeli opinion. Some learned Arabs have come to recognize this to be the underlying problem in our conflict. One such leader is the internationally respected former president of the General. Assembly, Dr. Charles Malik. In an in Dr. Malik stated:

"The main essential for peace-indeed the quintessential-is the need for the Arab world to accept Israel's existence." He [Malik] felt that this is the ultimate issue. Unless and until the Arab peoples have a genuine change of heart on this question, the Middle East will be vibrated from one crisis to the next. He [Malik] repeated "change of heart" in order to emphasize his belief that what is required is not just a temporary accommodation or an expedient political maneuver, but a genuine acceptance of Israel as a State. (7)

Israel seeks no legitimization of its right to sovereignty. It seeks no confirmation of this right. It makes no apologies for its statehood and it owes no explanation for the exercise of its rights. The recognition by its neighbors of these rights and of its place as an integral element in the Middle East lies at the heart of the problem, and only when this fact is acknowledged by the world community will the Middle East once again become a center in which the great cultures of Judaism and Islam will combine, as they have in the past, to contribute to the elevation of mankind, for the benefit of humanity in general and of the Middle East in particular.


(1) In the Cause of Peace (New York, Macmillan, 1954)

(2) Lie, op. cit.

(3) Resolution 32/90C on the Gaza Strip, passed December 13, 1977. Israel voted against; the United States, Canada, Costa Rica and Liberia abstained

(4) This statement, seen against tbe bistoric visit of President Sadat to Jerusalem and bis statement to tbe Knesset, empbasizes tbe revolutionary cbange wbich bas occurred in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Fahmy resigned in protest at President Sadat's initiative.

(5) United Nations Document S/PV 664

(6) On Sunday, November 27, 1977, I met with Ambassador A. E,mat Abdel Meguid, Egypt's Permanent Representative to the United Nation;, when he transmItted to me Egypt's invitation to Israel to send a delegate to the Cairo Conference in December 1977. The barriers between us had broken down.

(7) Saturday Review (March 22,1975)

The late Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) was Israeli Ambassador to the UN from 1975-1978, where he fought the resolution equating Zionism with racism. He also served as the sixth President of Israel (in the Labor Party) from 1983-1993.

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