As the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stagger toward their likely collapse, it is worth scrutinizing the most intractable issue: the claimed right of return for Palestinian refugees to their abandoned homeland in what is now the State of Israel. This is also the pivot upon which Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people turns.

There are two vital questions to be answered: Who counts as a refugee? Who does the counting? Because it is a political as much as a demographic issue, the claimed number of Palestinian refugees in 1948 varies widely. Palestinian sources, supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA), assert that between 800,000-900,000 Palestinians were driven out of the fledgling Jewish state. Israeli scholars claim between 600,000-700,000, while noting that many Palestinians left of their own volition or were urged to leave by their leaders until the Arab invasion climaxed in victory. Based on his careful study of British, Jewish, and Arab sources, Kings College historian Efraim Karsh concluded that there were between 583,000-609,000 Palestinian refugees.

As originally defined by UNRWA, Palestinian refugees were “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” The best estimates suggest that 30,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948 are still alive. Their return would present no significant problem for Israel. They could easily be absorbed among the 1.6 million Arabs who are Israeli citizens without significantly tilting the demographic balance.

But UNRWA devised a novel formula, which is applied to no other group of refugees in the world. It expanded the number of Palestinians entitled to benefits — including, implicitly, the right of return — to include “descendants” of Palestinian refugees — all of them. Consequently, five million children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now qualify as “refugees” — even if they have never set foot in Palestine and are already citizens of another country. By 2050, it is estimated that this preposterously inflated number will rise to 15 million. It should be noted that UNRWA can not survive without dependent Palestinians: if it confined refugee status to actual refugees, its 29,000 paid workers would soon outnumber its clients.

The Palestinian Authority eagerly embraces the UNRWA definition of “refugee,” insisting as a non-negotiable demand that not only every Palestinian Arab who left Palestine in 1948 — but all their descendants — are entitled to “return.” For Israel to agree, however, would assure the demographic destruction of the Jewish state. Once five million Palestinians “returned” — to Israel, because Palestinian leaders refuse to absorb them into Palestine — its Jewish majority (now 75% of slightly more than eight million) would vanish.

UNRWA’s obsession with imagined Palestinian refugees is reinforced by the unwillingness of nearly every Arab country, with the limited exception of Jordan, to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Indeed, even the Palestinian Authority still confines tens of thousands of their own people in squalid refugee camps rather than permit them to integrate as equals into Palestinian society.

The Palestinian monopoly on refugee status remains vital to its infectious self-identity of victimization. A Bengali immigrant to Jerusalem recently described her feelings of guilt (The New York Times, March 23) when she discovered that her new home in the elegant neighborhood of Emek Refaim had once been inhabited by a Palestinian Christian family “dispossessed” during the 1948 war.

Then she visited her “closest Israeli friend,” a “secular, left-wing… activist and lawyer,” living in nearby Ein Karem, once an Arab village. The friend vividly and emotionally recounted her hallucinations about “otherworldly visitors”: “the silent visitors, the original [Arab] residents of my house.” Tortured by guilt, she invited these “apparitions” into her home to drink tea together — after the returning mother searched the garden in vain for mint that once grew near the now barren fig tree.

It made me wonder. My Jewish grandparents, like those of virtually everyone I knew growing up, were refugees fleeing persecution in Russia and Rumania. Are we also entitled to reclaim our ancestors’ homes and receive financial support in perpetuity? What does it say about Palestinians, and those who enable them, that nearly sixty-five years later they still can only think of themselves as refugees in exile? Why, that is, have they recast themselves as Jews, who yearned for two thousand years to return to their promised homeland in the Land of Israel that Palestinians now claim as their own?

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Jewish State Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy, to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.