What about the refugees?

If Obama is truly sincere in his desire to facilitate peace, he must acknowledge this and do everything he can to remedy the situation.

Obama AIPAC 311  (photo credit: Screenshot)
Obama AIPAC 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
It was obvious from his comments Sunday before AIPAC, America’s powerhouse pro-Israel lobby, that President Barack Obama had internalized the criticism leveled at him over the weekend – including in this newspaper – for the Middle East policy speech he delivered last week at the US State Department.
As can be expected, his declarations, tailored for a Jewish audience, tugged at emotional strings.
The president called for an end to Gilad Schalit’s “five long years” of captivity; he reminded the audience of America’s unprecedented military aid to Israel; he affirmed the US commitment to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear arms; he vowed that his country would fight attempts to “chip away” at Israel’s legitimacy. And throughout the speech the repeated refrain was America’s “unshakable” support for Israel. All of these pronouncements were rightly answered with robust bursts of applause.
More substantially, however, Obama worked to clarify, if not outright reformulate, some of the more problematic points in his speech on Thursday. In that speech Obama had wondered out loud how Israel could “negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.” But he did nothing, then, more than expect Palestinian leaders to “provide a credible answer to that question.”
In his AIPAC speech, in contrast, Obama explicitly demanded that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, desist from terrorism and honor past agreements, the three criteria set down by the Mideast Quartet – the US, UN, EU and Russia.
This clearly is never going to happen, and Obama knows it, and he failed to outline concrete steps the US would take when Hamas refused. Hamas’s unity deal with Fatah, which reflects grimly on Fatah’s real intentions, is now a central obstacle to any progress. It is too bad Obama did not say so, choosing instead to emphasize that the “status quo was unsustainable” and that the current situation did not allow “procrastination.”
Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas is not foot-dragging, and it is Mahmoud Abbas who has stayed away from the peace table, even during last year’s settlement freeze, while Israel was pleading for talks.
Obama also modified his message from Thursday that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Visibly irked by what he claimed was controversy “not based on substance,” Obama returned to the issue. In public recognition of George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon, later endorsed by both houses of Congress, Obama made it clear that the mutually negotiated borders would be different than the ones that existed on June 4, 1967, and would account for “new demographic realities on the ground,” an apparent reference to settlement blocs. This was not solely a clarification but rather a substantial improvement on past ambiguity, which had been widely interpreted as a backtrack from the Bush position on settlement blocs.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE other critical point in Bush’s letter, which referred to the Palestinian “refugee” problem, was conspicuously absent from Obama’s clarification speech before AIPAC. Bush had rejected outright Palestinian demands for the “right of return,” arguing that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
The previous US administration fully understood that acquiescing to the Palestinian demand for implementation of the “right of return” for all who were defined as “refugees” (including millions of second, third, fourth and fifth generation descendants of those who actually left Israel during the 1948 War of Independence) would bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Obama’s repeated omission of the refugee issue raises serious questions. The US president did state several times his support for Israel as the “homeland for the Jewish people.” Obviously, maintaining such a homeland precludes recognition of a “right of return” for Palestinians that endangers Jewish sovereignty. Still, if Obama was already taking the opportunity to clarify and reformulate some of the more problematic aspects of his speech from last week, why didn’t he clarify this vital point? The Palestinians’ stubborn insistence on demanding the “right of return” for millions of “refugees” within Israel’s borders marks a refusal to accept Israel as the Jewish state. This outrageous demand, coupled with the fact that Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel, is an equal partner in the Palestinian people’s official political leadership, are the real obstacles to peace. If Obama is truly sincere in his desire to facilitate peace, he must acknowledge this and do everything he can to remedy the situation.