On rare occasions, one reads a book and wonders why such an important volume was not published years or even decades ago, and why what should have been obvious had largely been left unwritten. The subtitle of The War of Return answers this question before even a single page is turned. The force that has prevented serious discussion of this topic until now can be found in the book’s title: “Western indulgence.” It is this longstanding policy, of sorts, that has allowed the Palestinians to nurture the “dream” of turning the clock back to before November 29, 1947, when the UN General Assembly legitimized the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state. “None of the diplomats or negotiators truly understood and dealt with the root causes of the conflict, choosing instead to turn away and focus on that which appeared easier” (p. xiii). As a result, evidence of that indulgence has been systematically buried under a growing mountain of fanciful and counterproductive peace plans.
In an easy-to-read and fast-paced account, journalist Adi Schwartz and political scientist and former Knesset member Dr. Einat Wilf document the history of the Palestinian return narrative and its embrace by politically correct (and in some cases, intimidated) diplomats, journalists, UN and NGO officials, academics, and others. Meticulously researched and referenced, the chapters trace the chronology of this story through fascinating vignettes portraying the Westerners who helped build this edifice of unending war.
The authors present themselves as Zionists on the left side of the political spectrum: Schwartz wrote for Haaretz and Wilf was an adviser to Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, and later served as a Labor Party MK. Both favor a negotiated peace based on territorial compromise, but came to realize that the primary obstacle to achieving such an outcome was not Israeli policy and the post-1967 “occupation” but rather post-1948 Palestinian rejectionism. Together, they set out to document this missing history: “Our research revealed that the Palestinian refugee issue is not just one more issue in the conflict; it is probably the issue” (p. xi).
Schwartz and Wilf begin by refuting the accusation that in the 1948 war, the nascent Israeli army sought to expel the Arab population and that the “right of return” is a form of historic justice. Citing numerous documents from the time and the work of historians such as Benny Morris, they conclude that “the departure of the Arabs was a result of the war and only of the war. Before the Arabs waged war against partition, they did not leave their homes” (p. 15). In contrast, “not a single Jew remained in the areas conquered by Arab forces. The Palestinian fighters sought to expel the Jews and destroy their communities, as in Gush Etzion … and in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem” (p. 17). The accusation of “ethnic cleansing” often hurled at Israel was in fact the strategy of the Arab forces, as well as the mobs in the Arab countries that attacked their Jewish neighbors in revenge for Israel’s triumph over the invading armies. So much for “historic justice.”