Demands for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, although justified, is an unrealistic precondition for negotiations and a peace agreement, the president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, Dr. Ziad Asali, tells Haaretz.
Asali believes that Palestinians deserve both an official apology from Israel, as well as possible reparations, however, demanding a full right of return is simply not feasible.
Palestinians have insisted that Palestinians who were forced to flee Israel be given the right to return as part of a future peace agreement. Israel has said that this demand is unreasonable, as it would mean resettling millions of Palestinians within the country, thereby eliminating Israel's Jewish character.
"What is this right of return? It’s a recipe for non-negotiations," Asali said. "No one in Israel will accept the return of 4-5 million people, it’s ridiculous."
"I would accept a compromise on land that would give a potential future of dignity and equality for everyone," Asali said. "You need to separate – that’s why in my opinion there is no place for a one-state solution."
Such liberal sentiments have ignited criticism against the D.C.-based organization, which advocates for a "negotiated agreement that provides for two states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side in peace and security."
The organization is relatively new, having been established in 2003. Despite this, they have hosted several noteworthy speakers at their annual gala events. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a keynote speaker in 2010 and former National Security Advisor James Jones spoke the year before.
Founded by Asali, who practiced medicine in Illinois before he retired and moved to Washington D.C., the group was viewed with suspicion, even by other Palestinian organizations.
"I did not know these people. I wasn't part of a revolution," Asali says of the group's beginning. He says that they gained credibility by being consistent in their views, even when it cost them criticism from other Palestinian organizations.
An issue which has caused controversy for the group is their decision to reach out to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
"I do not speak off record - I am not looking for a job," Asali jokes as he describes how his group decided to have connections with AIPAC.
The group faced an unlikely critic - liberal U.S. Jews. Asali recalls losing friends over the move to reach out to AIPAC, saying some even said the group had "sold out."
"It’s funny that the liberal Jews think that the Palestinians should fit into their view of what Palestinians are and how they behave – fighting America and Israel," Asali says on the criticism they encountered.
Asali takes a reasoned, liberal stance on many of the issues that Israel and the Palestinians are dealing with today. And while he has praise for the long-standing American involvement in the peace process, he is not convinced the U.S. would be willing to gamble its reputation on a process that may be doomed to failure.
"I’d give them A for good intentions. It’s important, don’t take intentions for granted. What if the U.S. comes with a set of ideas, and can’t make it happen? There is no plan B. They couldn’t do it even with settlement expansion. The U.S. cannot subject itself to an utter failure should it declare their plan."
Asali also has praise for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and beleives that both are assets to the Palestinian people.
"We were fortunate when [Abbas] came back to power ... so we helped him with connections here. And then the Palestinians came with Salam Fayyad who was reliable, he is not a revolutionary, he did not go to prison, he didn’t kill anybody. It was very easy to communicate with him. He is brave and strategic. Fayyad shows what it means to be a democrat, even while creating security force that is on a verge of being oppressive – but he is committed to the idea of accountability and rule of law."
He believes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a complex personality, and has the potential to be a "statesman." But, he says, there are other sides to the prime minister: "I think there are three Netanyahus – one is a politician, the second is an ideologue with metaphysical leanings, and he shows glimpses of being a statesman. Which one he will chose, I don’t know."
Regarding the recently leaked "Palestine Papers," Asali downplays their effect on the actual peace process, placing emphasis on "what is happening on the ground in Palestine."
"There is a problem on both sides - they never prepared their people to the substance of the conversation. But they [the Palestinians] know the 1967 war was lost, they’ll have to compromise and the compromise is not going to be about the future of Tel Aviv and Haifa, but the future of Jerusalem and many other things. I think nobody is really surprised that some negotiators have been rather clownish, it’s sad. But the political process is not reduced to negotiations. What is important is what is happening on the ground in Palestine."
On recent moves by more than a few countries to recognize a Palestinian state, Asali says that while this is significant, the most important step is the one to be taken by Israel.
"I hope the chance for peace is not lost until 2012, but I won’t be surprised. The question of whether it will be lost beyond 2012 would depend on the next three years. The recognition of the Palestinian state is important psychologically, it’s important to have motion in the right direction, but it’s not a determinant – the real recognition of the Palestinian state should be by the State of Israel, not by France."
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