|As Israel and the Palestinians prepare to resume direct talks for the first time in more than two years next week, Sol Stern dismisses them out of hand before they even get under way. Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York, is the author of a recent article titled “The Naqba Obsession” and claims that Palestinian attitudes toward the refugee issue render any negotiations doomed from the start.
“It’s clear that there can be no agreement unless it’s understood that apart from some family reunification, some symbolic gesture that would send a few Palestinians back, there is no way you can have the State of Israel as a Jewish state and even contemplate the return of a large number of refugees, and the Palestinians have yet to face up to that,” Stern says.
The very notion of Palestinian refugees is “a great hoax” as far as he is concerned.
“Why are there refugees 62 years after the creation of the State of Israel,” he asks. “If a baby is born today in the Balata refugee camp that baby is called a refugee. The very notion is absurd.
“There can’t be peace until some Palestinian leader is willing to go to the camps and say, in effect, ‘We’ve lied to you for 60 years and you’re not going back.’” But Stern sees no Palestinian leader willing to take that step, certainly not PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who he says scuttled the last round of direct talks in 2008 with then prime minister Ehud Olmert despite receiving an offer that would have given him 98 percent of the West Bank.
“I believe that Abbas knew that at that point he would have to go to the refugee camps and say to the refugees in Balata, ‘You are not going back to Jaffa; you’ll get compensation, you can build a house, but you are not going back to Jaffa.’ They [the Palestinians] are trapped by their own propaganda and their own ideology.”
Stern describes the upcoming talks as “absolutely hopeless” and “mostly window dressing so [US President Barack] Obama can say he started negotiations.”
“Look,” he says, “[former US president Bill] Clinton did the same thing, with the negotiations between [Yasser] Arafat and Ehud Barak. Barak had agreed to divide Jerusalem, but Arafat went back and started the second intifada. It’s shocking to me that people don’t see that it’s happened again and again over history. When the Palestinians are offered a state, they reject it and start killing Jews. That’s their response.”
The refugee issue is one that Stern says Israel needs to place more of an emphasis on in its public diplomacy efforts. He would, he says, challenge the international human rights community over the refugees.
“I would say if you really care about human rights, what about the human rights of the refugees who have been locked up for 62 years. They’re not going back; no reasonable person thinks they are going back, so why don’t we start dealing with it now? Why aren’t they offered money to build a home outside of the Balata refugee camp? What would be wrong with that?” Stern suggests taking a leaf out of the history books and running – in the style of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe – some full page ads in The New York Times with a picture of a baby born last week in Balata and asking: “Why is this poor baby a refugee 62 years after the 1948 war?” “In my view,” says Stern, “this is something that is very important to focus on. It’s not just background noise.
It’s right at the heart of the problem.”
Stern, 75, was born in pre-state Palestine, but his parents, among the early members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, left for the US when he was an infant.
Ironically, he is now trying to receive Israeli citizenship on the grounds of his “Palestinian” roots. He says that he does not want to make aliya as that would be a false pretense, given that he does not plan to live here.
STERN HAD NOTHING to do with Israel until his mid 30s. He came here in 1970 on a press junket and, in his words, “fell in love with the country.”
At the time, Stern was very much identified with the New Left and had even been an editor of the radical magazine Ramparts.
Stern recalls interviewing Ezer Weizman shortly after he ended his military career and moved into politics with the right-wing Gahal party.
“I didn’t know much about Israel,” he says. “I was giving him the usual left-wing Berkeley stuff and he said, ‘Young man, it’s easy to ask these questions from Berkeley. Why don’t you come and live with us and you can ask what you want.’” Stern took up the challenge and spent several years working here as a journalist for the New Statesman and The New York Times, and he ended up marrying Weizman’s cousin, Ruthie.
When Stern returned to the US, his politics began to change, in part because of the New Left’s hostility to Israel.
“I became very annoyed with what I could see was a growing hostility per se to Israel, not a specific criticism of this or that policy, but a kind of animus,” Stern recalls. “I wrote an article that was a kind of plea, a useless plea, to, I guess, still my fellow New Leftists to end this knee-jerk reaction to Israel and try to be more analytic about Israel’s real problems and not to see Israel as the source of all the trouble in the world. It was not yet so manifest that this was the New Left’s position, but it was emerging that this was the case.”
That animus has only grown worse since then, says Stern. “The campaign to delegitimize Israel is just massive now. I remember when I started out we would have debates, but at least there were debates. Now on many campuses Jewish students who identify with Israel feel completely intimidated. There are whole departments, such as at Columbia University where control has been seized by left-wing professors.
It’s very hard to make a reasonable case for the Zionist project, for Israel, in American academia these days.”