In the nearly 49 years since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in a defensive war in 1967 – and the intense international focus on the situation in these territories – a growing number of people have come to believe that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is the paramount obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. If that were true, however, it should follow that there was peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, before 1967. Of course, that wasn’t remotely the case.
That’s why it’s particularly worthwhile from time to time, in an effort to better understand the core issues in the conflict, to revisit key source materials and policy statements during the period after the 1948 War of Independence and before the Six Day War of 1967 – before the IDF controlled even a centimetre of land in the “occupied territories”.
Of these, then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s address to the Special Political Committee of the United Nations General Assembly on December 15, 1961 is surely a standout. Coming just 13 years after the creation of the state, Meir’s address serves as a crucial policy statement during this period in Israel’s early history.
The speech – which was over six thousand words long and, according to the Jerusalem Post, took 70 minutes to deliver – is a matter of public record and the transcript is available for reference in full on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website, though for the purposes of this blog, AIJAC has reformatted the transcript into 13 separate subtopics and uploaded it to a new webpage that can be accessed here in an easily printable format. (Note: link opens a new browser window).
The 13 subtopics follow below, and include short excerpts from each section:
1. On Israel’s legitimacy
The text of the mandate recognizes and reaffirms the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine. The very term “Jewish National Home” denotes the recognition on the part of the League of Nations that the Jews have national rights in that country.
Note: Meir quotes at length from the report of the 1937 Peel Commission.
2. On Arab responsibility for the 1948 war
During the period between the adoption of the United Nations Resolution in November 1947, and the end of the British Mandate in May 1948, the Arabs of Palestine, encouraged and militarily reinforced by the Arab States, began all-out attacks against Jewish towns and villages.
There is not a shred of evidence in United Nations documents to substantiate the false charge made by the representative of Iraq that it was the Jews who, on the morrow of the United Nations decision, proceeded to attack the Arab community and to take over the whole country. Precisely the contrary is true.
3. On the Palestinian refugee problem
Every modern war creates a refugee problem. The responsibility, however, for the fact that Arabs became refugees must squarely lie with those who, instead of accepting the verdict of the United Nations, went to war to undo it and perpetrated the aggression of 15 May 1948 against the State of Israel.
Note: Meir further argues at length that UN agencies including UNRWA considerably overestimated of the number of bona fide Palestinian refugees.
4. On Israel’s absorption of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands
I should like to emphasize the fact that we in Israel have received since 1948 over 500,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab countries that is, practically the same number as that of Arabs who left the area which is Israel.
5. On the universal humanitarian imperative of resettling refugees
I do not think that we in Israel are unique in this respect. I could mention a number of countries which in the period since the end of World War II have reacted in the same way to the human challenge of refugee populations of their own kinsmen, both in Europe and in Asia.
6. On the Arab use of refugees as an existential weapon against Israel
The purpose of the Arab States is to achieve the destruction of Israel, and the immediate repatriation of hundreds of thousands of anti-Israelis into Israel is designed to soften up Israel, from within, toward her final elimination.
7. On Israeli humanitarian contribution to the alleviating the suffering of Palestinian refugees
We have done certain things ourselves in this matter to alleviate the Arab refugee situation. Since the end of the fighting, about 40,000 Arabs have come back into the country and have been integrated with the community.
8. On Israel’s standing offer for compensation to Palestinian Arab refugees
Ever since 1949, we have declared our willingness to pay compensation for refugee property abandoned in Israel. We stated our readiness to pay such compensation even before a settlement of all other outstanding issues provided, of course, that such funds be used as part of an overall plan for the solution of the refugee problem.
9. On Israel’s release of money from the frozen bank accounts of Palestinians
In response to requests made by the Conciliation Commission, the Government of Israel agreed to release all blocked bank accounts and safe deposits left behind by refugees in banks in Israel. In doing so, my Government desired to make a contribution of goodwill to alleviate the lot of a considerable number of refugees and to further the advance of peaceful relations between Israel and the Arab States.
10. On the efforts of Arab countries to increase hardship of Palestinian refugees and sabotage of any plan that would resettle them out of refugee camps
[For the Arab states] The overriding consideration is not what is good for the refugee, but what is detrimental to Israel.
11. On the favourable prospects for Palestinian refugees should they be resettled in Arab lands
The Arab refugees are not in strange and foreign lands. They are Arabs in Arab countries, amongst their own kith and kin, in a familiar environment of language, history, background, customs, and religion. Would it not have been the most natural thing in the world for the Arab countries to do as we did namely, to take in their brethren and create a new life for them within their vast expanses, with international aid, including compensation for property from Israel, and within the framework of the economic development of those countries?
12. On the desire of Israel for a negotiated peace with all of its neighbours
This unfortunate conflict is between Israel and the Arab States who refuse to establish peaceful relations with her and who refuse to cooperate in solving the refugee problem within the context of the restoration of peace in the area.
13. Conclusion: Summary of Israel’s position on Palestinian refugees
1. We accepted the 1947 compromise solution. Had the Arab States done likewise and urged the Arabs of Palestine to do so, there would have been a Jewish State and an Arab State living together in peace and cooperation.
2. The Arab States instead decided to launch a war against Israel. The Arab refugee problem arose as a consequence of this war. Those responsible for that war are responsible for the existence of the refugee problem.
3. About 550,000 Arabs left the territory which is now Israel. A similar number of Jewish refugees from the Arab countries have since been integrated into Israel. There has thus been a de facto exchange of population.
4. No United Nations resolution demands immediate, total, and unconditional repatriation of refugees into Israel. On the other hand, there are United Nations resolutions calling for negotiations of the peaceful settlement of all outstanding questions.
5. Israel believes that the future of the Arab refugees lies in the resettlement in the Arab countries, within the framework of the economic development of the Middle East.
6. Israel stands by its readiness to pay compensation for property abandoned by the refugees, even before a general peace settlement is concluded provided these funds are used for the overall solution of the problem. Israel will demand compensation for property of its citizens that was confiscated by the Arab governments.
What is clear is that Meir’s speech is composed of two major components which divide her remarks roughly evenly: the first half serves as a rebuttal to Arab challenges to Israel’s legitimacy; the second half takes an in-depth look at the Palestinian refugee issue from a number of different angles.
Meir’s concentration on the Palestinian refugee issue is partly because the issue dominated Arab moves at the UN and elsewhere, but also because it was identified as the wedge that the Arabs were using to attempt to create the conditions for destroying Israel from within.
It’s important to realize, when reading the speech, that the issue of Palestinian rights existed at this time only as a tool to delegitimize Israel. Jordan and Egypt were in control of the West Bank and Gaza and there was no real movement within the Arab world to give Palestinians living in those areas independence and statehood. Article two of the Charter of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was still three years away from being created, would expressly rule out this option.
The Arab countries were only interested in creating a Palestinian state that would replace Israel – not live in peace alongside her.
In addition, more than a historical piece, Meir’s speech reveals much that is as true today as it was then: it sheds light on the way Palestinian refugees are used as a weapon against Israel and to make sure the conflict will never wane; and it shows how advocacy for a one-state solution is just another strategy to deprive the Jewish people of their national rights and rights to self-determination in their ancestral homeland.
Another interesting aspect of this speech is that it reveals some long forgotten facts about Israeli attitudes and goodwill gestures towards the Palestinian refugees: firstly, that Israel had, on a case-by-case basis, allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to resettle in Israel after the War of Independence; secondly that Israel had a standing offer to compensate Palestinian refugees for their property in Israel – even without a peace agreement; and third that Israel had released frozen Palestinian bank accounts.
In hindsight, perhaps most poignantly, the speech shows the wisdom in Meir’s plea to the Arabs to choose to make peace with Israel and encourage the Palestinians to accept compensation, resettle and rebuild their lives for the benefit of Palestinians as well as the Arab countries themselves.
At the time Meir made her speech, according to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita was US$1,595.86. Since then, Israel’s GDP per capita has experienced a multifold increase, to $36,051.15 in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority together with Gaza (Palestinian populations that are only partially comprised of UNRWA-recognised refugees) reported a GDP per capita in 2013 of US$1,793.30 – and while the World Bank doesn’t keep similar statistics on the economies of Palestinian refugees in neighbouring states, given the historic dependence on humanitarian aid among Palestinian refugees, it’s likely their GDPs would be substantially less than that.
Postscript: It’s difficult to talk about Golda Meir on the subject of Palestinians in recent years without raising the false quote that has been widely attributed to her, particularly in the Internet age, that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Meir never said this and it is clear from anyone who read her 1961 speech that this was not her view. More discussion on this misquote can be found here.