In his report to the Third Session of the UN General Assembly on May 14, 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte, UN mediator for Palestine, offered the following prescient and sympathetic assessment of the human wreckage resulting from the creation of Israel:
No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged by the hazards and strategy of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine . . . . It would be an offense against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.
But, as is well-known, Bernadotte paid for this conclusion with his own life, the victim of an assassination plot by Israel’s future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. The Swedish diplomat’s remarks also failed to impress founders of the UN agency created to sustain this massive flood of Palestinian refugees. In an effort to trim the list of its potential dependents, UNRWA came up with this restrictive definition of refugee status following three years of trying:
A Palestinian refugee is a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum period of two years preceding the outbreak of the conflict in 1948 and who, as a result of this conflict, has lost both his home and his means of livelihood (p. 2).
This is where Sabbagh, a Palestinian British author, commentator and descendant of a Christian family from Safed, comes in. Although professing to offer a “modest proposal,” he is actually extending a febrile invitation to join the ranks of Arab and Jewish peace lobbies in an ambitious quest for a lasting solution to the Jewish-Palestinian problem. His artful title in this slim volume, deceptively lacking in physical heft, is nothing short of an overwhelming understatement. What he is suggesting has the potential to dismantle the state of Israel, the Sparta of the Middle East, as we know it today. He explains that the title, A Modest Proposal , is a satirical exaggeration first used by Jonathan Swift. Sabbagh then quickly exhorts his readers to engage with him in a quest for as immodest a solution to the Palestine question as was ever attempted, requiring massive effort, fund raising and organization, and a limitless degree of international collaboration. Thus, his modest proposal, which entails the notion of a people’s right to a homeland from which they were forced out, in this case a restoration of Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, including the right of return, is the only solution that will bring peace to the region. And when one faces the grim alternative to this plan, namely a perpetual state of violence and war, any outlandish scheme begins to take on the color of hope.
Sabbagh presents as the main theme of his book the creation of a single democratic state in pre-1948 Palestine, offering citizenship to all of its people, Arabs and Jews. But lest you take him for a Pollyanna, he rapidly acknowledges the formidable, political, economic and psychological obstacles standing in the way. Neither does he underestimate the impact of the exaggerated and unfounded Israeli misconceptions of their Palestinian neighbors whom they generally regard as poor, peasant-oriented, “uncontrollable, governed by terrorists or at least by people who are perpetually angry and with little or no cultural heritage beyond hummus and folk-dancing” (pp. 9-10). Seen in this light, the notion of mixing Palestinians and Jews would be akin to mixing oil and water, adding — with one of several flashes of ironic humor in this book — that, alas, the Israelis wish their land had oil, while proceeding to seize the Palestinians’ water. The general Israeli proclivity to marginalize the Palestinians dismisses several well-known traits of this captive population. Among these are the highest proportion of college graduates in the Middle East and a culture rooted in a long tradition of family connection to the land, hence combining an unrivaled geographic and cultural identity.
The author finds it very easy to contest the logic underpinning the Jewish claim that their position rests on realities on the ground, which demonstrate the incapacity of the lone Jewish state to absorb the returning Palestinian refugees. How can one reconcile this claim with the implicit assertion of the Jewish right of return, he asks, which assumes Israel’s capacity to absorb all of the 15 million Jews scattered around the world? He points out that this notion was first advanced by Herzl in 1902, when he visualized a state for Jews in Palestine, calling it Altneuland (Old New Land), when Jews barely numbered 20,000, while the Arabs there were 554,000 strong.
Moreover, Herzl resorted to racially charged terms in order to express the hope that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. To fold their tents and silently steal away, is their proverbial habit; let them exemplify it now” (p. 19). Yet, in 1946, the League of Arab States offered a plan for a one-state solution, even though what this entailed was the pragmatic concession of conferring citizenship on new Jewish arrivals who at the time lacked citizenship or passports entitling them to enter Palestine. But in the author’s view, admitting additional Palestinian numbers makes for an equitable solution. Consider for a moment the following demographic reality: there are six million Palestinians outside of Palestine, while six million Jews reside within it. Why not merge the Occupied Territories and Israel, the pragmatic author asks? At the very least, this would solve the issue of Israel’s illegal settlements, and free the Right of Return, from applying to Jews only. Here, Sabbagh cites the successful reunification of Germany in 1990 and Lebanon’s confessional system of government as two models worthy of emulation. Of course, one ponders the relevance of the two examples: one, reunifying two segments of the same population, the other hopelessly committing its sectarian population to years of conflict and civil war. Additionally, Israel’s stubborn resistance to the dismantling of settlements may be motivated, as Jonathan Cook reminds us, not merely by ideological considerations, but by the pragmatic possibility of using them in a complex future game of land swaps facilitating the expulsion of its Arab-Israeli minority.
As one reads further, it becomes clear that the author sometimes deliberately eschews the lessons of history. He quotes Shakespeare’s famous line from The Tempest, “What is past is prologue,” emphasizing that the preface to a play or novel sets the scene, meaning that we cannot forget the lessons of history, but we can free ourselves from their grip. Thus, we see him offer an erudite legal critique of the Balfour Declaration and how it affected some thoughtful and assimilated British Jews, such as cabinet minister Edwin Montague. Sabbagh also assaults the League of Nations mandate system, which installed rulers over some countries, such as Iraq, with the expectation of leading them to independence, but failed to do the same in the case of Palestine. “History as Prologue,” he goes on to say, may allow Sephardi Jews from Iberia to settle in Palestine since they were ethnically Jewish, but not the East European Jews who later built the state of Israel. What worked to enable the validation of this ethnic group’s claim was the manipulation of the American democratic system and the pursuit of a brutal ethnic-cleansing strategy in Palestine known as Plan Dalet.
Since the weight of the argument rests on a pragmatic solution, however, the author delves into the question of the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. He explains that the refugee designation cannot be extended to similar Palestinian groups since there are, as he sees it, at least three types of refugees: those inhabiting camps, those scattered throughout the Arab region, and those in various stages of assimilation and permanent settlement all over the world. Why such a distinction? His answer is that not all Palestinians will take up the offer of the right of return. Again, with an emphasis on realism and on the existence of prosperous Palestinian families living into the third generation all over the world, there may be many who will not return. But what might happen here is that, overpowered by nostalgia, prosperous members of the Palestinian Diaspora will seek to visit their original homeland at least once or more often as repeat tourists. They may also come on a time-share plan. By that time, peace would have returned to a land riven by wars, intifadas, terrorism and ethnic conflict. But those who suffered displacement and continue to subsist on the meager dole of UNRWA must be compensated. In theory, no one should quibble with this argument since it is enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194. And there may be some sympathy for the author’s recommendation of a massive financial settlement benefiting the Arab countries that bore the cost of settling refugees all these years, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Jordan, although many will complain that Jordan bears responsibility for starting the catastrophe. Who will pay for this massive resettlement plan? Clearly, when peace arrives, there will be no need for UNRWA’s services based on a budget of $925 million annually, or for Israel’s enormous military budget, or the cost of policing the Occupied Territories and defending the settlements or continually absorbing and settling immigrants — who are increasingly turning out to be Christian or atheist Russians, rather than Jews.
The author also refuses to pin his hopes on a negotiated settlement to end the conflict. He recalls the failure of the Camp David and Oslo agreements, particularly the latter, which demonstrated the incompetence of the PLO’s negotiators, who settled for an abbreviated quasi-state on 20 percent of the area of Mandate Palestine. He even provides an estimate of $60 billion as compensation to the 12 million Palestinians who suffered the loss of property and other forms of psychological damage and humiliation from their expulsion. This amount, he stresses, equals Israel’s annual defense budget, adding that some of these funds will be made up from the money spent by visiting or returning Palestinians. By comparison, he claims, Middle East wars, such as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, have cost an estimated $2 trillion dollars.
Sabbagh leaves the best for last, in a chapter titled, “A Scenario,” at once a joyous fantasy and a realistic pipe-dream. Here, he allows himself to imagine, almost with olfactory vividness, the taste of freedom and the scent of peace. Like the captive robin in a Marcel Khalife song who inquires about these from behind the bars of its cage, the answer comes out drenched in pathos and teary-eyed rumination. The author imagines what the absence of fear will feel like, particularly to the Israelis. He conjures up a leading article in the The Guardian, dated May 15, 2022, describing the birth of the unified state of Palestine. After convincing the foundations of the Koch Brothers and George Soros to pay for making this possible, the festivities are launched. He imagines the future Jewish and Arab co-presidents of Palestine, Ilan Pappé and Mustafa Barghouthi, arriving together at Ben-Gurion Airport — renamed Judah Magnes Airport after the first Jew to advocate the creation of a binational state in his short-lived Ihud Party. The speaker of the joint parliament is Albert Aghazarian, the leading official of Birzeit University and a native Armenian-Palestinian. At that point, the country is flooded with returned Palestinians, but the Jewish settlers have departed to their countries of origin, mostly to the United States. Dignitaries at this historic event include U.S. President Winfrey and British Prime Minister Corbyn.
Followers of the realist school of international relations or those adhering to Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” thesis regarding the inevitability of war between rising powers may not take the theme of this book seriously. For one thing, the author hardly mentions classic works on the subject — and there are plenty — not even the pioneering study of lost refugee property, Records of Dispossession : Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Michael Fischbach (2003). Neither does Sabbagh take into consideration the “prologue” to this issue and Israel’s strong belief in its military invincibility as long as the United States is on its side. One of the age-old axioms that apply to this case is that no one surrenders power willingly. What would compel Israel to make it up to the Palestinians? Sabbagh implies that he has the answer: appealing to rational Israelis. But even the moderate government of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) had given up on this possibility. As Mohamed Shtayyeh, a prominent member of this government, keeps repeating: Palestinians so far have used three strategies: (1) armed struggle, (2) negotiations and (3) diplomatic internationalization. The last — the hallmark of the PNA’s adherence to the two-state solution — has achieved little beyond publicizing Israel’s controversial human-rights record.
But if you do take the overriding theme of this book seriously, notice where it is published. This slim work is probably intended to be a report written for the benefit of British officials, in the hope that it may be adopted by someone like Jeremy Corbyn, Labor’s shadow opposition leader in Parliament. There are many such reports in Britain’s recent history, particularly in the period after World War II. Some, mostly by Labor civil servants, ended up being adopted as policy, inaugurating Britain’s welfare state. But if you think that nowhere under pan-Semitic heaven will this “report” ever be adopted as policy, may I share with you my physician’s comforting words whenever I complain to her about my deteriorating health: think of the alternative.