During an otherwise mundane session on new voices and perspectives in Israeli and Palestinian societies, Fatah’s Husam Zomlot controversially won the support of the floor for expressing the demand that Israel give “full recognition of the Nakba” and present the right of return as an option to Palestinian refugees.
Describing the refugee question as the easiest issue to resolve, Zomlot, executive deputy commissioner for the Commission for International Affairs of Palestine, said:
As for the refugee issue, how do you want me to sign a deal with my own hands that would compromise the rights of two thirds of the nation? How am I doing to build cohesion and eternal peace on such a compromise? Why do I have to compromise?
…What do the refugees want? Some of them want to stay where they are. Some of them might want to resettle somewhere else in a third country. Some of them might want to come back to the State of Palestine. And some of them might want to return to their original homes. But all of them want one thing: full recognition of the Nakba that has befallen our people.
Zomlot’s call received sustained and sure applause from the delegates in the hall. Zomlot got further affirmation for his argument when, while speaking about his father who resides in London, he stated that he “has a right” to return to his former home in Israel. “He has to be given that option.” The applause was lighter the second time around, however, but no less noticeable.
Such approval for the right of return departs from J Street’s official position on the subject, which is in line with the Zionist mainstream. “The refugee issue should be negotiated and resolved as part of an agreement between official Israeli and Palestinian authorities and endorsed by both peoples. J Street would support the approach outlined in commonly accepted models of a two-state solution under which the vast majority of refugees would be resettled outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel, while receiving compensation.”
Indeed, calling for the return of Palestinians displaced during the Wars of Independence (and their descendants) is regarded as an anti-Zionist position, one which would undermine Israel’s position as a homeland for the Jewish people. “The return to Israel of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their families” is “incompatible with our vision of Israel and incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict,” J Street argued in May 2012, in response to the growing influence of the BDS movement, which supports such recognition.
Backing for the recognition of the Nakba, too, is problematic. While the displacement of Palestinian refugees is a matter of historical record, the use of the term nakba—meaning disaster or catastrophe—is done in order to indicate that in addition to the refugee crisis, the creation of Israel is in itself part of the tragedy. The Israeli political class has been reluctant therefore to recognize the Nakba, and has called for acknowledgement also of the exodus of between 800,000 and one million Sephardim from the Middle East and north Africa following the Wars of Independence.
This incident follows the opening evening of the conference where Tzipi Livni received a lukewarm response to her call to unite behind the IDF. “There is a process of delegitimization against Israel which focuses on our soldiers,” Livni warned. “You should not accept the comparison between a terrorist who murders children in a school and the IDF.” On Sunday, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich’s thoughts on in the Iranian threat were also met unenthusiastically.
Support for security is “built into the baseline” of what J Street delegates believe, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, told me. “J Street is not a pep rally for the IDF. It is a convention of people who are trying to ensure the goal of the IDF that both peace and security are achievement. It is not a crowd where people are going to rah-rah over the IDF but will acknowledge that you can’t have security without peace.”
Nevertheless, in a year when J Street is evidently seeking to establish itself in Israel and the United States as a credible political force as capable as AIPAC, the inability of the leadership to keep parts of their support base in line represents an ongoing failure for the organization.
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.