August 01, 2016 - Bluffing or confronting history: Palestinians and Balfour Declaration; recovering Jewish property from Arab states; Bibi and Arabs in Israel


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses whether the Palestinian leadership's request to the Arab League to support its initiative to sue the British government is serious; whether minister for social equality Gila Gamliel's declaration that she is promoting a project to demand the restitution of property left behind in Arab countries by Jews who fled in the 1950s is an equally fruitless attempt to reverse the course of history; and why Netanyahu last week “apologized” to the Israeli Arab community and called upon it to “participate in Israeli society, en masse.”


Q. Last week, the Palestinian leadership asked the Arab League to support its initiative to sue the British government “because the Balfour Declaration led to the Palestinian Nakba.” Is this serious?

A. Next year, 2017, will mark a century since the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since the UN created the state of Israel and 50 years to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian initiative, submitted at an Arab League summit by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki in the name of President Mahmoud Abbas, is part and parcel of Palestinian efforts to exploit these anniversaries to focus international attention on Israel and the occupation.

But it is more: it attacks Israel’s claim to legitimacy under international law. The Balfour Declaration was ratified by the League of Nations and cited by the UN in 1947 as one of the foundations of the Jewish people’s claim to a state. The Palestinian national movement has long argued that Israel as a Jewish state is illegitimate and that international law supports Palestinian claims. Moreover, since 2008 when negotiations with then PM Ehud Olmert broke off, Abbas has abandoned direct talks with the Israeli leadership and opted for pursuing justice for the Palestinian cause in the international arena.

Obviously, a lawsuit against the UK 100 years later cannot be understood as supporting the Palestinian position regarding the West Bank occupation per se. It reflects the Palestinian view on the ultimate legitimacy of Israel as a whole. Nor does it have any chance of altering Israel’s international status. But as 2017 approaches, with its symbolic significance as an anniversary year, we can be certain that more such Palestinian initiatives will be introduced at international forums.

Q. At the other end of the historical spectrum, Gila Gamliel, minister for social equality in the Netanyahu government, has declared that she is promoting a project to demand the restitution of property left behind in Arab countries by Jews who fled in the 1950s. Is this an equally fruitless attempt to reverse the course of history?

A. Gamliel is a serious and hardworking minister not known for demagogic grandstanding. Yet it is hard to take her seriously. The Netanyahu government, to its credit, has invested in an effort to catalogue and document the property left behind by Jews fleeing Arab countries and in many cases confiscated by those countries’ rulers. Jews who fled Iraq, Syria and Egypt in the early and mid-1950s were in many cases well-off middle class merchants and professionals who held considerable assets; they arrived in Israel (and Europe, particularly the UK and Switzerland) with little but a single suitcase.

Recent decades have witnessed successful efforts by Jews in Israel to recover property abandoned or confiscated in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. But with the exception of a few extended and largely fruitless legal suits launched in Egypt since the Israeli-Egyptian peace, virtually nothing has been done in the Arab countries, some of which are still technically in a state of war with Israel.

Gamliel’s rhetoric, upon close perusal, is cautious: her activities will, she believes, bring about “substantial results” that will enable “in future, with a high probability, the presentation of demands for return of the property” in question. Estimates of the current worth of that property range from several billion to hundreds of billions of dollars, left behind many decades ago by nearly one million eastern Jews.

And when Gamliel’s demands are presented? The Arab answer will be twofold: first, Israel has to compensate the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants for the property they left behind when they fled the nascent state of Israel or were pushed out. Successive Israeli governments going all the way back to Ben Gurion have, after all, undertaken to provide that compensation as part of a peace settlement. And secondly, once Israel has normalized relations with the Arab states in question, individual Jews can apply in those countries’ courts, which are about as likely to honor those applications as Egyptian courts have done.

Note, in this regard, that in sharp contrast with the way the world has addressed Palestinians who fled in 1948, Israel never sought to classify Jews from Arab countries as refugees. Rather, in keeping with the Zionist ethos, they were immigrants making aliyah and coming home. This was a noble and just approach, but it complicates efforts to recover their lost property. Note, too, that the Palestinian leadership has consistently rejected Israeli efforts to present the two cases--abandoned Jewish and Palestinian property--as symmetrical, having been the product of the same conflict at almost the same point in time: “You have to take up this issue with Arab states, not with us,” say Palestinian leaders.

Accordingly, there is nothing new here. The issue was discussed by Israeli and Arab negotiators going all the way back to the “refugee basket” of the multilateral talks held under the Madrid accords in the mid-1990s. In the best case, Israel can argue--this time, unlike in the optimistic 1990s, in the total absence of a peace process--that an international mechanism should be established whereby all claims, Palestinian and Jewish, are reviewed and compensatory funds are provided.

And in the worst case? Gamliel’s effort will be understood as part of Netanyahu’s ongoing campaign to endear himself and his Likud party to Israeli voters with roots in the Arab countries. Notably, Netanyahu recently “discovered” that he too has Sephardic roots! His culture minister, Miri Regev, who unlike Gamliel is a demagogue and a rabble-rouser, has been fanning the flames of eastern Jewish resentment regarding decades of alleged discrimination by the Ashkenazic establishment. And his education minister, Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home party, has taken steps to rectify decades of alleged neglect of the Sephardic cultural legacy in Israeli education. So this is a hot and very controversial issue.

It’s all politics.

Q. Apropos politics and neglect, why did Netanyahu last week “apologize” to the Israeli Arab community and call upon it to “participate in Israeli society, en masse”?

A. Netanyahu’s “apology” was rendered in Hebrew (with Arabic subtitles) and in English and positioned on the prime minister’s Facebook accounts so as to be available primarily to the international community rather than to Israelis. Why apologize to Israel’s Arab citizens in English? The timing appears to be designed to upgrade Netanyahu’s image globally as a man of Israel-Arab peace in anticipation of attempts at the United Nations in September to condemn Israel and/or to mandate new action on the two-state solution.

We recall that in March 2015, on Knesset election day, Netanyahu famously summoned Israeli Jews to the polls to counter what he described (completely untruthfully) as masses of Arabs being bused to vote--by implication, against Jewish interests: “Right-wing rule is endangered. . . . Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses”. That last-minute exercise in paranoid demagoguery is credited with boosting the Likud’s Knesset representation at the expense of both the political left and the usually more right-wing Jewish Home party. Netanyahu was roundly condemned for that election-day appeal not only by many Israelis but by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the State Department and, in closed meetings, many other international leaders as well.

Now Netanyahu has apologized, albeit obliquely, for that appeal: “It is understandable that many were offended and I have apologized for the manner in which my remarks were understood.” And he has consciously used the same language, invoking “masses” of Arabs, to call upon them to “work in masses, study in masses, prosper in masses”. He reminded his audience, correctly, that his government is appropriating large budgetary sums to help close the huge infrastructure, housing and education gaps and correct the racism and discrimination separating Arabs from Jews in Israel.

Netanyahu’s new language for addressing Israel’s Arabs can only be termed patronizing and clumsy. Will it impress members of the UN Security Council sufficiently to affect their vote? I doubt it. As for Arab citizens of Israel, who like Mahmoud Abbas are increasingly taking their case against Netanyahu to the international community, it was highly articulate Member of Knesset Ahmed Tibi who responded, “they listen to Netanyahu and laugh”.