Encountering Peace: The removal of the table

Unilateral moves will not bring peace any closer. Instead, they distance the parties and make negotiations harder than they were ever before.

Abbas, Trump, Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abbas, Trump, Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or between Israel and the Arab world (the people, not the regimes) without an agreed solution to the conflicts over Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue. No unilateral act of an American president – even one instigated by an Israeli prime minister – will ever remove these two core issues from the negotiating table. Without Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees, there is no table to even negotiate at.
The American unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital only, or the American decision to cease funding to UNRWA do not remove these from the foundations of Israeli-Palestinian agreements to negotiate. These American actions do not erase the consciousness of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims that east Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine. The defunding of UNRWA by the US government does not erase the memory of pre-1948 Palestine, the desire to return and the demand to honor and acknowledge the suffering of millions of Palestinians who have grown up with the consciousness of their refugee status. In fact, the American actions prodded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu significantly boost the solidarity of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims around the issues of Jerusalem and refugees. The Trump-Netanyahu alliance of ill will towards the Palestinian people increases their desire to resist and wipe possible concessions and possible agreements off the table. That is what US President Donald Trump has removed from the table – the chance for a peaceful future.
How could anyone in their right mind imagine that Palestinians would forget the Nakba or accept Abu Deis in place of Al Quds? UNRWA has not kept the sense of statelessness and refugee status alive among millions of Palestinians – the continued occupation and denial of Palestinian national rights by Israel and the United States has kept the collective Palestinian memory of the Nakba – the catastrophe caused to Palestinians by Israel’s birth. UNRWA is not the problem – the continued occupation and refusal to allow the Palestinians to create their state is the problem.
Any possible future peace will have to be based on the mutuality of national rights in this one land between the river and the sea. It will also require the mutuality of the acknowledgment of suffering caused by both sides against each other in the decades of conflict between them.
The breakthrough of Oslo was based on the idea of mutuality of recognition when Yasser Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist but received in exchange only the recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian hope was that Oslo would lay the foundations to the two-state solution materializing the mutuality of national rights within the land. Israel and Palestine agreed to negotiate the core issues that would be agreed to in a permanent status agreement leading to the end of the conflict. Those core issues included the future of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees. There is no way to resolve those issues other than through a negotiated agreement.
There is nothing wrong with challenging both sides of the conflict with ideas and proposals. The issues are complex and creative thought-provoking ideas can be placed on the table. On the refugee issue, for example, the status of the future of the Palestinian refugees can be divided into at least two main principles. One principle deals with the issue of citizenship and residency while the other principle deals with the restitution of property rights or compensation for lost property. On the issue of citizenship and residency, from the official point of view of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority no longer exists. On all of the offices and buildings of what was the Palestinian Authority there are now signs saying “The State of Palestine.” I think that it is fair game to challenge the Palestinians regarding the refugee status of refugees in the West Bank. If the State of Palestine exists, how can there be Palestinian refugees within the State of Palestine? It would equally be fair game to challenge the Israeli side by saying that when Israel recognizes the State of Palestine, then the Palestinian refugees within that state would no longer be considered refugees.
This has nothing to do with the restitution of lost property or compensation for that lost property. The Jewish people are the last people who can claim that Palestinians who lost property that is today within the State of Israel have no rights to make property claims or to demand compensation for their lost property as Jews go all around the world making claims on their lost property. In fact that is what the Israeli settlement movements Elad and Ateret Cohanim do within the city of Jerusalem – claiming Jewish owned property from before 1948.
The status of Palestinian refugees in Jordan who hold full Jordanian citizenship can also fairly be challenged. Many of those Palestinian Jordanians are central parts of the Jordanian government and economy and have been for many years. It is legitimate to ask when people who hold citizenship in another country are no longer considered by themselves and by others as refugees? This is quite different from the Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps (which are essentially large urban slums) in Syria and Lebanon. It is completely fair to place serious charges in front of the government and people of Lebanon who have severely discriminated against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for decades. The behavior of the Lebanese government toward Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is disgraceful.
Trump and Netanyahu have not removed these core issues from the table of the negotiations. This they will never do. They have though completely removed the table and with it any chance of any deal of the century.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.