Obama poster in Ramallah 370 .
(photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
As President Barack Obama prepares for his first trip to Israel as president, no
one doubts we will see a strong push to get both Israelis and Palestinians to
the negotiating table. Yet, doves on both sides acknowledge it would take
nothing short of a miracle to get down to the business of building a real
Understanding the true barriers are key to predicting where the
pressure to compromise will be coming from. Counter to popular belief, despite
the significant demands put on Jerusalem by Washington over the past five years
which resulted in a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, the core of the
conflict is neither the settlements nor Jerusalem.
A closer look at the
situation on the ground will allow Obama to understand two major realities
before he attempts to jump-start any peace process. The first is that the
two-state model today is only applicable to Israel and the West Bank; there can
be no contiguous Palestine State in West Bank and Gaza with Hamas in power in
the latter territory. Second, the crux of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is
rooted in the Palestinian “Right of Return,” the collective belief in a right of
return to homes in Israel that were once part of mandatory “Palestine” and which
is central to Palestinian national identity.
Given this, a more
productive route for the Obama administration would be to tackle the growing
number of “Palestinian refugees” and the never-ending expansion of UNRWA (the UN
body devoted to maintenance of these individuals).
narrative sees a direct correlation between Palestinian identity and refugee
status that fuels the notion of statelessness and “otherness” within the refugee
All of this has resulted in everlasting blame
toward Israel and the West. In fact, as correctly stated by the United Nations
Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) former general counsel James Lindsay, “The vast
majority of UNRWA’s registered refugees have already been ‘resettled’” (or, to
use the UN euphemism, “reintegrated”) and that “only thing preventing citizens
from ceasing to be ‘refugees’ is UNRWA’s singular definition of what constitutes
The image the global community has when it hears words such
as “refugees” and “refugee camps” is one of fleeing individuals living in tents
in dire settings. However, a closer look at Palestinian refugee camps reveals
that they are actually adjacent to neighborhoods in Palestinian cities, and have
water, electricity and satellite TV.
These claims made by UNRWA and
Palestinians have engendered sympathy that has helped UNRWA generate billions of
dollars of financial support. All rooted in the belief that these funds would
eliminate starvation and help Palestinian refugees to assimilate.
world has been led to believe that the greatest crime ever committed was against
the Arabs of Palestine and that their only savior is UNRWA, which not only takes
care of the refugees but guarantees them and their descendants refugee status
for life through a self-sustained bureaucracy. In 2007, shortly after the Hamas
takeover of Gaza, Ahmed Jammal, a father of five from Gaza, exclaimed inside an
aid center in Gaza City that “we now have only God and then UNRWA.”
relationship between UNRWA and the Palestinians has become one of mutual
dependence, fostered by UNRWA being the only provider of social services. This
helps force the Palestinians to stay in the periphery of the world while UNRWA
becomes the center which controls the money.
If the current US
administration cares about fostering peace and moving forward a two-state
solution it needs to understand that UNRWA prevents any sort of normalization
Understanding how a UN agency is an integral ingredient
in a long-term Arab strategy to perpetuate the misery of the Palestinians and to
keep this humanitarian burden at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict is key.
This has been the Arab world’s biggest success against Israel, and has come at
the expense of the Palestinians. If Obama truly wants to move the peace process
forward it would behoove him to look at what our taxpayer dollars are buying in
UNRWA and to take a careful look at those who are truly being served.
author is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, and an adjunct scholar at
the Middle East Forum.