Every time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office in Jerusalem, two individuals in the region stretch their necks to the limit, as though straining to hear whether anything new is happening. One neck is that of King Abdullah of Jordan, the other is the collective Lebanese neck. With reports about the Israeli proposals to the Palestinians replete with hints about progress on the issues of the refugees and border demarcation, Jordan and Lebanon have cause for concern - particularly with regard to the refugee question.
"The Jordanian option does not exist," King Abdullah made a point of declaring last week in an interview to the French weekly L'Express. Abdullah is worried about what Abbas told Arab newspapers last month after visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Back then the Palestinian president said he could not demand that Israel accept all the refugees, but that this need not mean that none of them would return. "It is untenable for me to propose that five million refugees return to Israel, because they [the Israelis] will immediately tell me that I am out to liquidate the state. But it is also untenable for me to say that none of them will return. Compensation must be paid to those who return and to those who do not return, and also to the countries that hosted the refugees."
During a visit to Lebanon two weeks ago, Abbas assured his hosts that he is against settling the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and that he fully supports the Lebanese position: that settling them in Lebanon will not constitute one of the solutions to the refugee problem. "The refugees in Lebanon are among those who will return to their soil," Abbas said. The Jordanians found that reply difficult to swallow. If Abbas is promising the Lebanese that the Palestinian refugees will not remain in Lebanon - as though the matter were up to him - why does he not make a similar commitment with regard to Jordan?
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the settlement of the refugees in countries outside Palestine has been considered a reasonable solution to the problem. Before the most recent war in Iraq, it was widely reported that Iraq would absorb the Palestinian refugees in return for the lifting of the sanctions imposed on it. Since the war, no one is talking about Iraq taking in Palestinians. So ingrained is the hatred for them - because of their close ties in the past with Saddam Hussein - that they would be risking their lives by finding a home in Iraq.
Lebanon, home to 350,000 refugees, according to government estimates, is fearful that its precarious demographic balance will be undermined by taking in an additional 8 percent of Sunni Muslims. Who will they vote for? Even now, Lebanon's ethnic weave makes it difficult to achieve stability. Add to this the tragic history between Lebanon and the Palestinians and you get an extraordinary Lebanese approach - even Hezbollah is not merely opposed to settling the Palestinians in the country, but is also doing nothing to alleviate their condition. Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has not called for lifting the draconic employment restrictions on the Palestinians in Lebanon, which make it impossible for them to work in some 70 different professions or to acquire property. The Shi'ite leader, who professes such great concern for the "Palestinian problem," is not so bothered by those who suffer that problem in his country.
In light of this, a theoretical formula was worked out in Lebanon, according to which a third of the refugees will be absorbed in Europe, Canada and the United States, a third will return to Palestine and a third will be granted citizenship in those Arab states where they have relatives. Jordan was appalled, because once Abbas is no longer president, and if a right-wing Israeli party will conduct the peace negotiations, or even if "only" Shaul Mofaz becomes prime minister, the Jordanian option is liable to be revived.
"Jordan is updated about all the contacts between Mahmoud Abbas and the government of Israel," a member of the Jordanian Parliament told Haaretz. "We are well aware of where things stand, and to the best of my knowledge there is still a large gap between what Olmert is presenting and the agreements that have been reached on the refugee problem. The progress has been mainly in formulating the agreement that there won't be a full right of return for all the refugees, but what is the just solution that Abbas is talking about? Can anyone cite numbers?" Asked why Jordan is not actively involved in the talks, he replied: "After all, Jordan disengaged from Palestine and has no wish to take part in a dialogue which is almost certain to fail. Is Egypt involved? Is Saudi Arabia involved?"
But Jordan finds it necessary to prepare the ground - for example to ensure that Hamas will stand with the kingdom and not against it. Accordingly, King Abdullah launched a series of consultations, which started back in March, with Palestinian figures from various streams, including Hamas, in order to reach an understanding with them that the Jordanian option will not be resurrected and that settlement of the refugees in Jordan will not be part of the agreement. The consultations were undertaken with Abbas' knowledge and concurrence.
For Jordan, whose population is more than 60 percent Palestinian, the problem concerns the country's character and identity. Even before the second intifada, and more so in its course, when concern arose that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would cross the border into Jordan, the prime minister at the time, Ali Abu al-Ragheb, announced that his government would not grant citizenship to even one additional Palestinian. That approach is even more deeply ingrained today.
With nearly two million Palestinians and another 700,000 refugees from Iraq living in Jordan, the country is barely able to create its own national identity. The slogan "We are one family," intended to show Jordan's solidarity with the Palestinian problem, was changed to "Jordan first." Publicists in Jordan have written that the slogan should really be "Jordanians first," implying that the Palestinians who hold Jordanian citizenship are not truly brothers.
That distinction is drawn most tellingly by the leaders of the Bedouin tribes, who a few years ago, whether in earnest or not, called on the king not to forgo the compensation accruing to Jordan for hosting the refugees for 40 years. The simple calculation they made came to $40 billion - $20,000 per refugee multiplied by two million Palestinians.
The Palestinians, for their part, are reassuring the king by saying that they continue to rely on the legal interpretation from the period in which Israel's relations with the Palestinian Authority were reasonably good. According to this approach, as long as there is no Palestinian state, the refugees will be able to return to Israel. Once the Palestinian state is established, the refugees will be able to return to their new homeland. Embedded in this formulation is a trick meant to resolve the historic demand with the political reality. After all, without an agreement on a Palestinian state there is no agreement on the right of return, an d only an agreed Palestinian state will be able to grant the "Jewish solution" to its refugees, namely a return only to the new homeland.
In the meantime, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and the other Arab states will continue to follow the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. In less than two weeks they will know whether there is a new Israeli partner who will take it upon himself to continue the talks. The keys to the homes they still hold dear to their hearts will probably add a thick layer of dust and rust before anyone formulates for them the concrete interpretation of the right of return or the right to compensation.
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