With US Mideast envoy George Mitchell set to begin a new phase in the diplomatic process when he meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli officials reacted sharply on Sunday to recent “hard-line” Palestinian comments on the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948.

The refugee issue is one of the core issues – along with border and security, settlements, Jerusalem and water – that the US, as part of its new diplomatic track toward a framework agreement, will begin discussing intensively, but separately, with Israel and the Palestinians.

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Mitchell is expected to shuttle in the coming days between the sides, as the direct talks have been shelved because of the Palestinian Authority’s adamant refusal to enter negotiations without an additional settlement freeze.

Responding to an op-ed piece written by chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat in The Guardian on Friday, one Israeli official said, “Erekat says he wants peace, but by pursuing a hard-line position on refugees, he is actually making peace more difficult.

“The international community and leading Palestinian moderates have all spoken about the need for the Palestinians to compromise on the traditional position on the refugees, but in his op-ed piece, Erekat reaffirmed the hard-line Palestinian position, and in doing so – rather than showing flexibility – has showed an unwillingness to compromise.”

Erekat, in a piece marking 62 years since UN General Assembly Resolution 194 calling for a return of Palestinian refugees “wishing to live at peace with their neighbors” and compensation for their losses, wrote that “contrary to what Israeli political figures would like the world to believe, the issue of Palestinian refugees is not an academic matter, the solution of which is somehow rendered moot by the passage of time and by the creation of Israeli ‘facts on the ground.’”

Erekat posits as fact that Israel “bears responsibility for the creation of the refugees,” and puts the number of Palestinian refugees today at “more than 7 million people worldwide – 70 percent of the entire Palestinian population.

“Disregarding their legitimate legal rights enshrined in international law, their understandable grievances accrued over prolonged displacement, and their aspirations to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel completely untenable.”

Comparing Palestinian refuges to Bosnian refugees and noting that then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright called on the Bosnian refugees to return en masse to their old homes, Erekat said that in both “Bosnia and in Palestine, the return of refugees has been considered absolutely necessary for the stability of peace. Any deal that does not respect the rights of refugees has been viewed as bearing the seed of its inevitable failure.”

Responding to Erekat, Israeli officials said he conveniently omitted the fact that the 1948 war during which the refuges were displaced was caused because the Arabs rejected the two-state solution being offered and “embarked on a war of aggression to violently overturn the legitimate decision of the international community.”

Refugees is just one of the highly contentious issues that Mitchell will have to grapple with, another being Jerusalem. On Sunday, Netanyahu – at a meeting of his Likud faction – distanced himself from statements Defense Minister Ehud Barak made on Friday night at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington, advocating a division of the capital.

Describing how he viewed a solution, Barak said, “Western Jerusalem and the Jewish suburbs for us, the heavily populated Arab neighborhoods for them, and an agreed-upon solution in the ‘Holy Basin.’”

Netanyahu, in a meeting on Sunday with Likud ministers, stressed that Barak “presented his plan as chairman of the Labor Party. These comments to don’t reflect the government’s policies.”

Nevertheless, Barak is scheduled to meet in Washington on Monday with Vice President Joe Biden, new National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Defense Minister Robert Gates to discuss the diplomatic process and security and regional issues.

In a related development, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd arrived on Sunday for a visit as part of the Australia- Israel leadership forum. He is scheduled to meet Netanyahu during his visit and in addition to the developments in the diplomatic process, discuss bilateral relations.

This is the highest-level Australian delegation since Canberra expelled an Israeli diplomat in May as a result of the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, and since Julia Gillard succeeded Rudd as prime minister in June.

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