Why Jewish refugees are a hot topic again

By Nathan Jeffay, December 22, 2010
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Ayalon: pushing the refugee issue

Ayalon: pushing the refugee issue

Israel's Foreign Ministry has begun a push to force the other Middle East refugees onto the international agenda and factor them into peace talks.

The United Nations estimates that, upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, 726,000 Palestinians became refugees. Meanwhile, Arab states displaced a large number of Jews. The advocacy organisation Justice for Jews from Arab Countries estimates the number at 856,000.

Two thirds moved to Israel but, strangely, Israel has done little to demand that they are compensated. So why is the Foreign Ministry taking up the issue now?

One of the factors holding back the issue has been ideology. The right has felt that talking about Israelis from Arab lands as refugees could undermine the notion that they were returning to their historic homeland. Voices on the left have argued that trying to bring about peace in the Middle East is complicated enough without factoring this, which could hold back peace talks.

Today this kind of strongly ideological thinking is unfashionable. Beleaguered by international criticism, the Israeli public is receptive to discussions that place blame for the state of the Middle East on parties other than Israel. And the communities that immigrated from Arab countries, once peripheral and politically powerless, are increasingly influential and have significant political clout.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon feels very strongly about the issue, further propelling it. His father was an Algerian Jew who was forced from his home after Israel declared independence. Noting that the UN considers the children of Palestinians who left their homes to be refugees, he wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, declaring: "I am a refugee."

Israeli law now mandates that peace negotiators highlight the subject. In February the Knesset adopted a law under which any Israeli government entering into peace talks must use those talks to advance a compensation claim for those who became Israeli citizens.

If peace talks progress, there are two main directions the Jewish refugee issue could take. One is that it could be forgotten in an attempt to reach an agreement. Another is that it could become part of a regional peace agreement. Back in 2000, President Clinton mooted the idea of establishing an international fund to compensate both Palestinian and Jewish refugees, and some Israelis retain hopes of such a fund being set up and Israel, Arab countries, and international donors paying in to it.

Last updated: 1:38pm, December 22 2010