Roger Cohen’s ‘Blight of Return’ Article

Roger Cohen’s ‘Blight of Return’ Article

In an important NY Times column, Roger Cohen begins by contrasting the Palestinian Authority’s moderation, as expressed by Salam Fayyad’s support for a two-state soluiton, with Khaled Meshal’s “awful speech” in Gaza recently:

“Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north,” he declared. In other words, forget compromise on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps: Annihilation of the state of Israel remains the goal.
Then there was Mohamed Morsi. … now the Egyptian president, was chief of the Brotherhood’s political arm. This week it emerged that in this role in 2010, he said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” He called Zionists “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” And he called for all Palestine to be freed.
…. When the United Nations called in 1947 for the partition of Mandate Palestine and the establishment of Jewish and Palestinian states, the proposed Palestinian state occupied about 42 percent of the territory. Arab armies went to war and lost. Today, with the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians stand to get about 22 percent of the land under any two-state peace. The annihilation ambition has been a recipe for Palestinian defeatism, victimhood and loss.
Wide swaths of the Palestinian leadership have drawn the lesson. … New policies — of nonviolence, responsible governance, elimination of militias, central control of security and economic growth — have been embraced to lay the groundwork of statehood, a state explicitly envisaged as existing side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.
The achievements in Ramallah have been widely lauded, including by the World Bank, but Israel has held back, one reason for its current isolation. Rather it has pursued West Bank settlements, to the dismay of Obama, who, according to a Bloomberg column by Jeffrey Goldberg, is convinced that, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The settlement expansion is indeed self-defeating. It precludes the two-state peace Israel needs to remain a democratic and Jewish state. But it is in line with the platform of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which says that, “Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”

Here’s Roger Cohen’s very powerful further statement on the inability to compromise:

Pursuit of all of the land, with its accompanying “right of return,” is a form of perennial victimhood, one that has spawned some 4.7 million Palestinian refugees, several times the number who were driven from their homes in the war of 1948. The right of return would be better named the blight of return. It is a damaging illusion that distracts from an achievable peace in the name of Palestinian children and grandchildren nursed on hope. There is the possibility of compensation, but there is in history no right of return. [our emphasis added] Ask the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Turks of Greece, the Germans of Danzig and Breslau (today Gdansk and Wroclaw) — and the Jews of the Arab world. …

By | 2013-01-22T14:51:00-05:00 January 22nd, 2013|Blog|5 Comments


  1. Anonymous January 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    It is disturbing to see Meretz repeating and even highlighting Cohen’s factually incorrect argument regarding the right of return.

    There is an internationally guaranteed right of return under international law, and that right of return has been since 1948 very clearly the historical focus of international efforts for displaced people in many countries. It is true that the right of return did not become clearly enshrined in international law until 1948. However, it is factually wrong for Cohen to say “there is in history no right of return.” There are certainly cases of refugees returning to their homes prior to 1948, and since 1948, which is part of “history” as far as I know, the right of return has been both legally protected and has been exercised in many cases and places.

    See HRW as one example of documentation:

    Cohen and Meretz need to wrestle with the facts, not just make things up and assert arguments that are convenient.


  2. Ralph Seliger January 24, 2013 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    This analysis at Human Rights Watch dovetails with the careful and considered provisions for implementation promulgated in the informal Geneva Accord ( of Dec. 2003, which Partners for Progressive Israel champions, and Olmert and Abbas attempted to implement for real in their negotiations, broken off with the election of Netanyahu in 2009.

    But given that most Palestinian refugee homes no longer exist, decades have past and the agreement of a sovereign state needs to be obtained, its implementation would mainly be in compensation, resettlement in third countries and a “return” to the territorial boundaries of the new Palestinian state.

    I would never deny that refugees have rights under this international legal principle. But Cohen is correct that “in history,” in actual events, there has been no right of return implemented for millions of others displaced during and after the World Wars: not for Greeks and Turks after WW 1, not for millions of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe (including territories that had been solidly German) after WW 2, nor for tens of millions of Muslims and Hindus when British India was partitioned.

  3. Anonymous January 24, 2013 at 11:35 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    This is a bizarre argument, are you suggesting that “history” ended at World War II and the partition of India? “In history,” particularly since 1948, there has been a right of return under law, and that right has very often been exercised.

    Cohen himself forgot that he had written about refugee return to Kosovo, as noted by Yousef Munayyer here:

    Here is more on refugee return in Bosnia:

    HRW wrote about more examples in that link I had already provided. And if I (or you) spend a bit more time on it, it is possible to find many more examples. There is plenty of “history” of refugees returning.

    Your claim that because decades have passed and homes do not exist, therefore Palestinian refugees should accept compensation, resettlement in 3rd countries or settle within a new Palestinian state rather than returning to the area they came from is an assertion, but it has no actual basis in laws relating to the right of return for refugees. See HRW again as one example (though many other sources exist):

    “The scope of “his own country” is broader than the concept “country of his nationality”. It is not limited to nationality in a formal sense, that is, nationality acquired at birth or by conferral; it embraces, at the very least, an individual who, because of his or her special ties to or claims in relation to a given country, cannot be considered to be a mere alien…”

    “One’s “own country” implies a broader set of ties and connections that together make up “a genuine and effective link” as defined in the Nottebohm case. It allows for those outside their own country to return for the first time, even if they were born elsewhere and would be entering for the first time, so long as they have maintained a “genuine and effective link” to the country.”

    Cohen’s statement, bolded by Meretz, that “in history there is no right of return” is factally incorrect. And there is no legal basis for denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to within what is now Israel.


  4. Ralph Seliger January 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Citing the rare case of Bosnia, does not rebut Roger Cohen’s statement that no right of return has been implemented for millions of people displaced during and after the World Wars.

    As I’ve said, there is a legal claim to a right of return and Partners supports a practical adaptation of it as defined by the Geneva Accord, formulated by Israelis and Palestinians who support a two-state solution. An actual “return” by an unlimited number of people (most of whom never lived there), instead of compensation and resettlement, is not politically viable. Hopefully, the struggle for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be derailed by absolutism on this matter.

  5. Panda January 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    Another episode, mostly unkonwn outside Italy: An agreement on compensations has been reached, but of course no “right of return”.

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