The “affaire Whitley” gets even stupider

Posted: November 5, 2010 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative, new items and opinion pieces, quite a bit of well-deserved sarcasm, UNRWA

The cast of Twilight debates whether: 1) the refugee issue is an artificial creation of the Arabs and the UN, because all those refugees were happy to leave in 1948 and didn't really have their homes seized and/or get shot at if they tried to return, or 2) one day Israel will decide it doesn't want to be a Jewish state, and it will happily allow 4.7+ million refugees to return to their ancestral homes. With werewolves and vampires. And teen romance.

First Andrew Whitley says something very sensible, but probably outside the remit of a serving UNRWA official. Then everyone dumps on UNRWA, including a great many folks who know he is right but would rather that UNRWA didn’t say it, or that it wasn’t said at all prior to any eventual peace deal. Then UNRWA, quite understandably, tries to shield itself from the criticism by disavowing Whitley’s statement. On one side, Whitley is declared an “enemy of the people” for sharing his honest opinion. On the other side, the usual critics of UNRWA—apparently failing to recognize that UNRWA, like any UN agency, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the international community that needs to stay within its formal mandate—jump all over UNRWA for distancing itself. Moreover, as they write all about UNRWA’s latest sins these same critics somehow completely overlook Israel’s primary culpability for the creation of the refugee issue in the first place.

Frankly, Toy Story 3 had far more thoughtful arguments than does much of the reaction of the past few days. Heck, even the cursed Twilight saga does.

Among those who has been weighing in during the current kick-UNRWA moment is Ben Cohen, the Associate Director of Communications for the American Jewish Congress, in an article (“UNRWA Shames Andrew Whitley“) in today’s Huffington Post. Among other things, Cohen even manages to liken UNRWA to the KGB—indicating that perhaps my suggestion a few days ago that Fillipo Grandi is actually Dr. Evil in disguise was closer to the mark than I ever suspected. (Watch out for that pinky finger during staff meetings, UNRWA folks!)

The Huffington Post limits the length of online responses, which means I couldn’t post my thoughts there. Consequently, here they are instead:

Dear Ben:

While I agree that the Whitley episode provides an opportunity for a much needed airing of the political unfeasibility of large-scale Palestinian refugee return to Israel, you could be more careful with your facts.

  • While Andrew Whitley was correct in noting that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to ever be able to return to their homes within Israel, you should perhaps make clear that every serious set of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issue since 2000 has presumed that some (largely symbolic) number of refugees would be able to return. At Taba in January 2001, for example, Israeli negotiators proposed 50,000 over five years (in an ambiguous 15-year formulation that might have stretched the possible number as high as 150,000). I hope you are as concerned as others are that the Netanyahu government might reverse the Israeli position and attempt to bar all refugee return.
  • The notion that “Palestinians, in contrast to other refugee populations, are obliged to transfer refugee status to their descendants” simply isn’t true. Palestinians have to register for UNRWA status, are not obliged to do so, and cannot do so at all if they live outside UNRWA’s areas of operation. Other refugees around the world  can also pass on their refugee status (technically referred to as “derived status”) under certain conditions–for example, many of the Afghan refugees who returned to Afghanistan with Western support after the overthrow of the Taliban were second (or subsequent) generation refugees.
  • Whitley’s candor did not “cost him his job”–he was already scheduled to leave the organization at the end of the year.
  • Far from Whitley’s apology being “His tone is so supine and humble that the reader is bound to wonder if these words are actually Whitley’s, or whether they were authored, in the manner of the KGB, by someone else,” a close reading of it would show that while he regrets (as any good UN official would) the problems caused for the organization by his comments, he nowhere recants the accuracy of what he said.
  • Given the frequency with which Israel itself protests UN officials who make controversial comments, it is a little disingenuous to claim that “Had the “Israel Lobby” secured such a mournful repudiation of the right to independent thought from a critic of Israeli policy, the chorus of “I-told-you-so” would raise the roof.” Andrew Whitley is a UN official, and as such is bound as any public servant to reflect the official line while employed—which, in this case, is determined by United Nations General Assembly resolutions that, for the most part, the US routinely endorses.
  • It is true that, in absolute amounts, Arab states are not among the top 20 donors to the Agency. Nor, for that matter, is Israel, which created the refugee issue in the first place. Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, however, provide a broad range of services to the refugees which do not flow through UNRWA. Given the small size of their respective economies, these far exceed the generosity of any other donor.
  • al-Awda’s attack against Whitley was over the top, and certainly condemned by those who work professionally on the refugee issue (including me). Sami Mshasha merely said that UNRWA “appreciates your concerns and we, at UNRWA, understand the reasons that prompted you to share these concerns with UN officials”, which hardly falls into the category of  “gratefully recognizing the organization’s role in securing Whitley’s apologia.”
  • You comment that successive generations of Palestinians “live in Arab countries with the inferior status of the refugee, barred from non-menial jobs, higher education, the ability to travel and all the other benefits that make a free life worth living.” Of the major host countries, only Lebanon has such restrictions on refugees. Palestinians in Syria enjoy legal equivalency to Syrian citizens in almost all areas, except for voting (which hardly counts for much in Syria anyway). Palestinians in Jordan are full citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be full citizens too, if it weren’t for that inconvenient Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
  • “Without the refugees, there is no “original sin” to pin upon Zionism.” The establishment of Israel forcibly displaced some 80% of the Muslim and Christian population of the nascent Jewish state. Subsequent Israeli policy seized their properties and barred their return on ethno-religious grounds, in what many today would consider an act of ethnic cleansing. Of course, Israel was not the only state to be established on the wreckage of its dispersed and dispossessed indigenous population—the same is true of settler states in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, while those states and populations have increasingly recognized the injustices that accompanied their creation, Israel has been reluctant to do so.

You are quite right to call for a more realistic discussion of the prospects for the right of return. It would be helpful if you would combine this with a corresponding call for recognition of Israel’s primary culpability for creation of the refugee problem in the first place–otherwise it is certainly going to be difficult to convince refugees to forgo any of their internationally-recognized rights in the absence of even a simple “you were wronged.”

  1. Carl Prine says:

    “Moreover, as they write all about UNRWA’s latest sins these same critics somehow completely overlook Israel’s primary culpability for the creation of the refugee issue in the first place.”

    Well, that’s certainly a subtle analysis of a complex issue.

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    Actually, I don’t think the primary culpability is all that complex–but yes, perhaps I’ll comment on it more fully at this point.

    I do still adhere to the “multiple Carl clones” theory of how you comment on everything so quickly, SNLII… 😉

    • Carl Prine says:

      Next you will say it’s “hasbara.”

      • Rex Brynen says:

        Which, the “all left because of Arab radio broadcasts” line of argumentation? We both know that was hasbara.
        On the broader issue, I would argue that 1) the Balfour Declaration and 1947 UN partition resolution were both unjust, and Palestinian rejection of them was hardly surprising or inappropriate. 2) Regardless of who deserves the most blame for the 1948 war, civilians were displaced, largely (as Benny Morris shows) as a direct or indirect result of Israeli military actions. I don’t have a strong position on how much of it was a deliberate effort—I’ll accept Morris’ argument that it was a bit of both—because I’m not sure it matters so much in the end. 3) After the war, Palestinians were prevented from returning on ethnic grounds, in order to assure a Jewish majority for Israel. That meets my definition of both forced displacement and ethnic cleansing. (I also understand, given the Zionist purposes of the state, why it happened, but that doesn’t provide a moral get-out-of-jail card.) 4) Given #2+3, the primary responsibility for the creation of the refugee issue is Israel’s. If we want to add in #1, we can blame the British too, which is always fun.

        Now, do keep in mind that I also think that 1) you can’t always turn clocks back, 2) that there is value in being realistic, and 3) that apologies can serve a useful political purpose. Living as I do in house on ex-Mohawk land, I find no contradiction between recognizing that indigenous populations in North America were unjustly dispossessed, often by force, and accepting that we have to live with the irreversible consequences.

  3. Carl Prine says:

    Morris in 2004 took a more nuanced view of the issue. I’m not exactly convinced that he’s ever argued for a “moral get-out-of-jail card,” but he most certainly has suggested that his later research found Arab leaders urged Palestinians to leave their enclaves, most especially women and children.

    During a general call for more honesty, perhaps we might hear a peep, even one quite timidly uttered, for some recognition of Palestian responsibility for the refugee problem (Morris mentions Israeli intelligence reports indicating 30 percent of the evacuations weren’t due to settlers or military forces) and Arab state meddling, for all sorts of cynical and sincere reasons, in the ongoing perpetuation of the crisis.

    I’m also a bit bemused by this throwaway barb — “Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be full citizens too, if it weren’t for that inconvenient Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.”

    Yes, Rex, perhaps they would still be less-than-full “citizens” of Egyptian-occupied Gaza or the Jordanian-occupied West Bank.

    Just my two shekels, or dinars, take your pick.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      Given current exchange rates, I’ll take the dinars.

      Morris does find some cases where the AHC recommended limited evacuations of villages, although hardly changes the overall reality that people were fleeing war, and that in many cases populations were forcibly removed. It also doesn’t change the reality that they were prohibited from returning on ethnic grounds

      The later Benny Morris position, of course, is that forced displacement did indeed take place: “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.” Indeed, if anything he’s argued there wasn’t enough of it. He justifies it, of course, on the grounds of the righteousness of the Zionist mission–something I wouldn’t have granted in 1917 or 1947-48. Then again, now is now, and Israel has as much right to peace, security, and self-determination as any other state (within its 1967 borders).

      On the Egyptian and Jordanian record in Gaza and the West Bank, I’m hardly about to defend it (although it could be noted that those in the West Bank were full Jordanian citizens after 1950). I certainly wouldn’t argue that the Arabs, or Palestinian leadership, comes out of 1948 looking very impressive at all.

      Coming back to my original point, I think that its both morally appropriate and politically more effective if efforts to realistically address the likely future options of refugees are linked to similar efforts to recognize the injustices done in 1948.

  4. Terry Rempel says:

    interesting discussion … maybe i’m dense, but i still don’t get how the formula – recognition without reparation – which has been thrown around for some time now (in fact you can trace this idea back to internal UNCCP discussions in the early 50s) advances a solution. its clever, but seems to me that both sides understand it as “smoke and mirrors”, which diminishes its symbolic value, and both sides have reason to believe that it fails to meet their basic “needs” in the “Rossian” sense of the term. for Israel, recognition, however cleverly worded, challenges the official narrative of 1948, and regardless of the importance of the new historians – i think you’ve made this point elsewhere Rex – that narrative which denies culpability for displacement (or ethnic cleansing, whatever you want to call it) still stands. attempts by Barak and Olmert to acknowledge “Palestinian suffering”, which might be considered steps forward, still were a far cry away from any kind of recognition of responsibility. while there are some civil society groups working to open up discussion of 1948, they are, while important, marginal, and, what’s more, they have received little support in their efforts from international actors who remain either unaware or reticent to enter into such matters, which are considered internal to Israel, and, relevant largely to post-agreement peace building. moreover, the attention given by Israel to legal detail and interpretation of statements and agreements – the story behind Bush’s 2004 letter of assurance to Sharon is but one example – suggests that any statement of recognition that would be of sufficient symbolic value for Palestinians, would be beyond what Israel could offer, because of legal implications for reparations. on the Palestinian side, it seems pretty clear that among refugees there is a basic understanding that a right without being able to exercise it is no right at all, and that compensation, especially what has been on offer to date, is simply not going to be an adequate substitute for return and restitution. i think this tends to be doubly so when you try to convince refugees to forgo their rights. in my experience, this actually puts you further back than ahead. it has been tried now for 60 years, and i don’t see any evidence that such an approach is going to be anymore successful than it has been in the last 6 decades. i’m increasingly of the view that the refugee issue, while ultimately for negotiators to craft an agreement, simply cannot be resolved effectively from the outside-in and top-side down.

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