Peace and the 'Right of Return'

On May 24, at Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress. With the demand for change sweeping the Middle East, the UN General Assembly threatening to declare a Palestinian state in September, and President Obama in his speech from the State Department earlier today having reaffirmed his determination to see negotiations move forward, it will be incumbent on Netanyahu to restate the principles for a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Among those principles will be recognition by Palestinians of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Contrary to international public opinion and Obama administration rhetoric and policy, Palestinian refusal to do so remains the heart of the conflict.

Since the collapse in July 2000 of the Camp David talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, it has been widely assumed that the parties agree on major principles:

  • A Palestinian state should be established with borders that for the most part track the 1967 lines but which accommodate Israel’s needs for security.
  • Israel and Palestine should share Jerusalem as their capitals.
  • A reasonable number of Palestinian refugees should be allowed to take up residence in Israel.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s demand in 2009 that Israel cease construction beyond the Green Line became, for the first time, a Palestinian precondition for negotiations, and directly led to a breakdown in talks between the two sides. It also reinforced the opinion common in Europe and progressive circles in the U.S. -- and Israel -- that but for Israeli intransigence, the two sides could achieve peace.

Thanks to “The Palestine Papers and the Right of Return,” a study recently released by Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, we know that what has been widely assumed is wrong. The study (available online as a PDF file) carefully analyzes the leaked Palestine Papers -- more than 1600 internal Palestinian documents published online in January by Al Jazeera dealing with the last decade of negotiations. While Israel’s settlement policy is certainly open to criticism, and most of what is supposedly agreed upon remains contentious, the Palestine Papers show that the biggest stumbling block is fundamental disagreement about refugees.

And contrary to initial reports in the Guardian, the Palestine Papers do not reveal conciliatory Palestinians pitted against inflexible Israelis. For example, whereas Israel is prepared to welcome a small symbolic number of refugees, the PA seeks to preserve an unlimited flow that would, by sheer numbers and deliberate intention, end Israel by turning it into an Arab-majority state.