Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's initiative in opening the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab states to public debate has met, as expected, with angry Arab reactions. One of the reactions was the accusation that the issue is an "invention." The reason for these reactions is that this issue has up to now been unknown. Successive Israeli governments ignored it and the media neglected it. It was treated with contempt, amidst the concern that raising it would awaken Palestinian claims and harm the peace process. So the world became accustomed to relating only to the Palestinian nakba that resulted in 650,000 refugees, according to UNWRA, the U.N. agency created specifically to deal with these refugees.
The Arab governments are careful to perpetuate the misery of the Palestinian refugees, not allowing them to be rehabilitated or to become citizens in their countries, due to the ideology that maintains that rehabilitating the Palestinians would be to Israel's advantage. The Arab leaders have repeatedly placed full responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel. At the same time, Israel never made a serious effort to exonerate itself of this accusation, even though U.N. Resolution 194 from 1948 did not hold Israel responsible for the problem.
Another claim made by the Arabs is that the Jews were not forced to flee from the Arab states, where they lived in peace and harmony. Here, a history lesson of the conflict would be in order. They would discover that, during the U.N. debates in 1947 about the proposal to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, their representatives (Heykal Pasha from Egypt, Dr. Fadhil Jamali from Iraq and Jamal al-Husayni, head of the Palestinian Arab delegation, and others) not only declared that "the partition line will be a line of fire and blood;" they also announced that partitioning Palestine would put the Jewish communities in the Arab states in mortal danger. Immediately after the 29 of November -- the day that the partition plan passed -- the Arab armies and the Palestinian Arab gangs attacked the Jewish community (the Yishuv) in Palestine and, simultaneously, rioted against the Jews in the Arab countries.
The war started by the Arabs led to killing, destruction and terrible human tragedy. Eight hundred and fifty-six thousand defenseless Jews fled to Israel and other countries, leaving behind their personal and communal property and assets, while six hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians abandoned their firing positions and their homes and went to Arab countries. In effect, a population exchange occurred between the State of Israel and the Arab countries, similar to the population exchange that occurred between India and Pakistan. However, the Arab states, following the instructions of the Arab League, refuse to recognize this situation and prevent the humane resolution of the problem that they created.
Despite the fact that the human dimensions of the catastrophe suffered by the Jews from Arab countries were greater than the dimensions of the catastrophe suffered by the Palestinians, the world's attention has always focused on the latter. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1957 did indeed recognize the Jews from Arab countries as refugees, but the U.N. General Assembly did not pass a single resolution on their behalf. In contrast, it has passed more than 160 resolutions and declarations in support of the Palestinian refugees. This one-sided approach has not solved the problem and has exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It could be that the Jewish refugees were ignored because the Jews from the Arab countries rehabilitated themselves in Israel and in other countries and the conditions of their life in the camps became a thing of the past. All of the U.N. resolutions and the billions of dollars donated to the Palestinian refugees by the international community have not improved their situation and they continue to live in appalling conditions.
The time has come for the Arab states to acknowledge the reality created by their war on Israel and to stop toying with the possibility of turning back history, stop reciting the slogan "right of return" for the Palestinian refugees and stop sowing illusions in their hearts.
A solution to the tragedy of the refugees in the Middle East -- Palestinians and Jews -- can only be found by looking at the total picture. Any solution must be shared by the Arab states, Israel and the international community. It must be based on President Clinton's proposal in 2000, to establish an international fund to compensate Palestinian and Jewish refugees. In the Middle East conflict, the Palestinians were not the only ones to suffer; the Jews suffered, too. Justice must be done, and it must be seen to be done, for both sides, for the sake of a true peace in the Middle East.
Zvi Gabay is a former ambassador and deputy director general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.