Interesting Times: 'Tear down those camps!'

The refugees have been cruelly shaped into a living, suffering dagger aimed at Israel's heart.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
June 12 was the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall!" speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. On the popular blog Power Line, Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson describes how he drafted that line after meeting with Berliners whose raw anger at the scar crossing their city surprised him. He also recounts the pitched battle waged by the US foreign policy bureaucracy to remove those key words from the draft speech. Robinson writes, "[They claimed] the draft was na ve. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts ... no fewer than seven. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing." "The day the President arrived in Berlin, State and NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. Yet in the limousine on the way to the Berlin Wall, the President told [Ken] Duberstein he was determined to deliver the controversial line. Reagan smiled. 'The boys at State are going to kill me,' he said, 'but it's the right thing to do.'" Minutes later, Reagan called out to the Soviet leader, "if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Two years later the wall was broken into a million pieces, along with the Soviet Union itself. On Sunday, another anniversary arrives, this time of one of the most pivotal speeches of the Bush presidency. On June 24, 2002, Bush called on "the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror." THOUGH WE do not yet have the history of how this speech was written, we can imagine that Bush showed considerable determination in going directly opposite to the conventional wisdom of the time - including massive pressure from Tony Blair - to impose some new initiative on then-besieged Israel. As The New York Times reported days before the speech, the internal policy debate was over "how strongly to endorse an interim Palestinian state." Instead, Bush, for first time, linked Palestinian statehood not to Israeli behavior but to Palestinians embracing democracy and rejecting terror. The result was immediate and dramatic. Europe, while not backing Bush on the need to oust Yasser Arafat, came part way with the demand for a Palestinian prime minister who would ostensibly usurp Arafat's powers. The ensuing "road map," though a somewhat twisted version of Bush's speech, kept the critical notion of ending terrorism before negotiations could begin. Israel, meanwhile, was free to defend itself against the ongoing Palestinian suicide bombing onslaught, which was increasingly blamed on Arafat, not Israeli intransigence. Now Bush is reportedly considering commemorating his 2002 speech with another landmark address on the Middle East. The timing, just after the Hamas's "Six Day War" against Fatah in Gaza, is propitious. What should Bush say? First, he should reiterate the linkage between Palestinian statehood, building democracy and rejecting terrorism. Though Hamas now wraps itself in the mantle of democracy, its barbaric behavior and its choice of war and terrorism - after campaigning for "Change and Reform" - amounts to a hijacking of Palestinian democracy. Next he should challenge Fatah to take advantage of this golden opportunity. Just as Hamas now has no one to hide behind and must be held responsible for any attacks from Gaza, so Fatah must be held accountable for building a peaceful, law-abiding Palestinian state. Unfettered by Hamas, Fatah must now take real steps toward peace with Israel. THIS WILL bring Bush to the nub that will make history. The most powerful way for Bush to call on the soon to be aid-flush Fatahland to hold up its end of the bargain is to dismantle the core symbol of the rejection of Israel's right to exist: refugee camps. For 60 years, the Arab world has, as Bush said in 2002, treated the Palestinians "as pawns in the Middle East conflict ... held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come." The refugees have been cruelly shaped into a living, suffering dagger aimed at Israel's heart. What is striking is how calculated this strategy has been. Egyptian foreign minister Muhammad Salah al-Din made no bones about it as early as October, 1949: "It is well-known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the Homeland and not as slaves. With a greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel." Former UNRWA official Ralph Galloway was equally blunt in August 1958: "The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die." Bush should call for an end to this travesty. If Mahmoud Abbas really believes in a two-state solution, he must stop telling Palestinians they will "return" to a land most have never seen. He must say that the "right of return" can only be actualized in a state alongside Israel, not in its stead. According to UNRWA, it is managing eight "refugee camps" in Gaza and 20 in the West Bank. If Palestinians are truly going to live in a future Palestine and not in Israel, then why are they not being settled now? How is it possible to be a Palestinian "refugee" inside Palestine - unless "Palestine" actually means Israel itself? The Arab states, for their part, should be called upon to offer citizenship to Palestinians who have lived for years in their countries and do not want to move to a Palestinian state (as Jordan has done). If they do not, they are playing into the hands of the Hamas-Hizbullah-Iran jihadi front that is fighting peace with Israel with all its might. Is this what these states want? Palestinian refugee camps are as cruel an invention as the Berlin Wall and as central an obstacle to resolving the conflict that they embody. Reagan in 1987 and Bush in 2002 illustrated the power of honest words, however "unrealistic" they may seem at the time, to shape history. Bush should call on Palestinians and the Arab world to "tear down those camps!"