Making the refugees priority No. 1

Abbas has perfected the art of complaining, yet has not presented a vision for solving the refugee dilemma, one that would address legitimate Palestinian needs and Israeli concerns.

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 war.
Abbas’s version of the events of 1947 and 1948 caused much consternation, and left some wondering how the piece passed the paper’s factcheckers.
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 conflict.
There can be no end to the conflict, Abbas argued, without recognition and implementation of the socalled “right of return.”
WHAT HE 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 ominous.
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, Hamas.
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, to Palestine.
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.
In this way, UNRWA can evolve from a support agency to one devoted to resettlement.
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 not.
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.
Sixty-three years 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.
Abbas needs to articulate his vision for resolving the refugee situation.
If not, then others must insist that he does.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.