Two days before President Barack Obama delivered his Middle East policy address,
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas revealed on The New York Times
op-ed page that his core issue was not Israeli settlements. No, most vital for
the Palestinian leader is fulfilling what he asserts is a Palestinian right to
return to the homes and lands vacated during the first Arab-Israeli
Abbas’s version of the events of 1947 and 1948 caused much
consternation, and left some wondering how the piece passed the paper’s
Contrary to the Abbas version of history, the original
promise of a Palestinian state was unfulfilled because the Arab world rejected
the 1947 UN Partition Plan creating two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The
Palestinian refugees were a product of the war, initiated by the same Arab
nations, to destroy the nascent Jewish state. Abbas prefers to ignore historical
facts and blame Palestinian troubles on the Jews.
Anger at the
Palestinian leader, as well as at the Times for publishing him, however,
diverted attention from the essence of his message. On reflection, the Times
deserves thanks for giving the Palestinian leader the space to elucidate in
plain English his thinking on how to resolve, or in this case, perpetuate the
There can be no end to the conflict, Abbas argued, without
recognition and implementation of the socalled “right of return.”
wrote was not new. Addressing the UN General Assembly last September, Abbas
focused on “the Palestine refugees, who for more than 60 years still await the
redress of their plight and the realization of their right to return to their
homes and properties.”
The decision to prominently raise the refugee
issue again on the eve of Obama’s White House meeting with Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, while pressing a global campaign to win UN recognition of a
Palestinian state declared unilaterally without an agreement with Israel, is
Abbas has perfected the art of complaining, yet he has not
presented a vision for solving the refugee dilemma, one that would address
legitimate Palestinian needs and Israeli concerns.
Obama has repeated a
longstanding approach that finding a solution for the refugees should wait until
two other fundamental peace-process issues – territory and security – are
settled. But further delay will neither alleviate the refugees’ conditions nor
diminish their threat to Israel.
Obama also stressed that the solution
ultimately will lie within the Palestinian state. Others around the world agree.
But that’s not the view of the Palestinian Authority or its new partner,
TO BREAK this impasse, and respond to the challenge Abbas
presents, the Quartet, with US leadership, should be saying clearly that now is
the time for the Palestinian leader to tell the 4.7 million refugees that they
are not going to Israel; they will be welcomed in a future Palestinian state or
will settle where they live now, knowing they will have an attachment, a bond,
The new state will face difficulty succeeding if a
significant percentage of its population continues to subsist on UNRWA handouts.
It is not too early for the PA to discuss with UNRWA what incentives and
opportunities will be needed to move the 1.4 million refugees in Gaza and the
West Bank off of the UNRWA rolls. The PA should also be discussing with Jordan,
Lebanon and Syria how many Palestinian refugees realistically could move to
Palestine and how many would need to be integrated by those countries.
this way, UNRWA can evolve from a support agency to one devoted to
If Abbas and the PA balk, then the US, in particular, has
some leverage to press for this UNRWA transformation, since Americans contribute
more than 25 percent of the agency’s budget.
The Palestinian leadership
must assume responsibility to begin the conversation in earnest with the aim of
finding a creative solution before any further movement toward a unilateral
declaration of independence. Better to have all the core issues resolved,
including refugees, to help assure a true end to the conflict before any UN
recognition of a Palestinian state.
But, unwilling to speak directly and
truthfully to the Palestinian people, Abbas still prefers to tout UN General
Assembly resolution 194 as the blueprint for a “right of return,” which it is
Also, it takes some gall to hold up that document when the Arab
states rejected it in 1948, just as they had turned down Resolution 181, the
partition plan which called for a Palestinian state.
later, Obama reiterated the vision of two states – a Palestinian state, a
homeland of the Palestinian people, created alongside Israel, the homeland of
the Jewish people, all achieved through direct negotiations.
to articulate his vision for resolving the refugee situation.
then others must insist that he does.The writer is the American Jewish
Committee’s director of media relations