The ‘Peace Process’ Unravels Yet Again
The Obama Administration’s Mideast peace-making whirlwind appears to be headed towards an early demise. The immediate focus of the parties’ mutual recriminations center on the release of prisoners, settlement construction, and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to sign on to international organizations. None of this tactical jockeying, however, should distract from the fundamental reason why negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have, yet again, hit a brick wall.
As any experienced negotiator knows, it is impossible for adversaries to settle a dispute if, going in, one side insists on a term that is a fundamental deal breaker to the other. Negotiations under such circumstances are doomed to collapse, and, when they do, the parties’ relationship is inevitably worse than before futile exercise began.
Welcome to Israel and the Palestinians, episode – whatever. In the context of the Oslo process, successive Israeli governments, including the current one, have acceded to the Palestinians’ fundamental goal of establishing an independent, geographically contiguous state. The Palestinians, however, have always insisted on a deal breaker for Israel: millions of refugees must have the right to “return” to Israel. Underlying this claimed right of return is the Palestinians’ abject refusal to acknowledge the reality of Israel as Jewish state. This is not a blueprint for an “end of conflict” agreement; it is a blueprint for lasting conflict.
Even if they are so inclined (and they are not), it would be a Herculean task at this point for the Palestinian leadership to reverse course and take their deal breaking demands off the table. For decades, Palestinian leaders have fed their people a steady diet of “right of return” and no Jewish state. They have done nothing to prepare their people for the compromises that a real two-state solution would require.
The problem was graphically illustrated recently when The New York Times interviewed Mai Abd al-Razzaq, a 49-year-old Palestinian mother of seven and resident of the Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank. In just a few candid sentences, Mrs. Abad al-Razzaq spoke to the essence of the conflict with Israel, and the futility of negotiations:
Asked about a solution for the refugee problem, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq laughed and said: “It is impossible to return.” But she added: “We insist on return. We don’t want to give up our rights. We will leave it for the generations to come. We don’t want our grandchildren to say we sold out the land.”
The Times story concerned striking workers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA is the only UN agency dedicated to a single refugee population, the Palestinians. UNRWA is responsible for administering the Jalazoum refugee camp and other camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.
While the UN long ago closed the books on the tens of millions of post-World War II refugees, UNRWA labors on, supporting what is now the fourth generation of the original approximately 700,000 Palestinian refugees – now totaling approximately 5 million people, according to UNRWA estimates.
There is much to unpack form Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq’s brief remarks. For starters, how is it that she and her family live in a refugee camp in the West Bank? They are not consigned to camps in Syria or Lebanon. Sixty-six years after her parents and grandparents left or fled from their homes, they live as refugees on land officially designated for a future Palestinian state. Why have they not been integrated into Palestinian society?
The answer is both simple and pathetic. Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq is a willing participant in the cynical project to wallow in refugee status in order to preserve the “rights” of Palestinians to “return” to Israel. For Palestinians and their supporters, Israel’s 1948 War of Independence – the “Nabka” or “catastrophe,” as they call it – will never be lost so long as the refugees remain in limbo. Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq and her children are willing sacrificial pawns in this astonishing public relations stunt.
As former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was fond of saying, “all Palestinians are martyrs.”
In a brief salute to reality, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq acknowledges that “it is impossible to return,” but she nevertheless “insists” on it. Laughing at the inescapable absurdity of her thinking, she takes pride in condemning herself and her seven children to continued statelessness in order that her grandchildren won’t “say we sold out the land.”
Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq is merely echoing the promises made by generations of Palestinian and Arab leaders. President Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely perceived as a Palestinian “moderate,” insists that Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to pre-1967 Israel. He describes this right as “personal” to the Palestinian refugees, not something the Palestinian leadership could ever bargain away.
Throughout the ill-fated negotiations sponsored by Secretary Kerry, President Abbas has also continued to tell Palestinians and Israelis alike that, in essence, Palestinians reject a basic tenet of a real two-state solution: “We won’t recognize and accept the Jewishness of Israel.”
The notion that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is the root of the conflict, as Israel’s detractors – and even some of its friends – insist, is an over simplification to the point of delusion.
Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq didn’t tell the reporter that the solution to her family’s refugee predicament was to uproot the Israeli settlements. She didn’t demand that a Palestinian state be established based on the 1967 truce lines, creating a state where millions of Palestinians could “return” to and build a nation. No, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq, parroting her leadership, spoke to the essence of the conflict. She said that it’s all about “our rights,” rights to undo the Nabka and “return” to pre-1967 Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu understands this type of mentality all too well. He understands that unless Palestinians acknowledge the reality of Israel as a Jewish state – and that they will “return” to Palestine, not Israel – there can never be an “end of conflict,” as Israel insists. Unless the Palestinians finally accept the outcome of the war of 1948, the parties can never resolve the effects of the war of 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli control.
It’s not just Mr. Abbas who has failed so miserably to prepare his people for peace. The international community, while frequently castigating Israel for its settlement policies, has cowered from telling the truth to the Palestinians – that Israel is indeed a Jewish state, however Israelis chose to define that concept.
Until Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq and the millions other of Palestinian refugees abandon the myth of “returning” to pre-1967 Israel and, instead, focus on building a Palestinian state on the West Bank, peace is illusory, and negotiations are futile, possibly counterproductive.
The international community must insist that the Palestinian leadership tell Palestinians the truth about what an end to the conflict means, just as the diplomats tell the Israeli government what they believe to be the truth about the West Bank and settlements.
Otherwise, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq’s grandchildren will indeed someday honor her for not having “sold out the land,” no doubt, as residents of a UNRWA- run refugee camp.
Gregg M. Mashberg is the Board Chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s New York Region.