I couldn't see Mustafa Barghouti's face. In the Tel Aviv studio leased by CNN in honor of May 15, there was no monitor on which I could see my opponent speaking from Ramallah. But the earphone transmitted the message loud and clear: the right of return. Without embellishment, without stammering and without any excuse: the right of return. No less a personage than Mustafa Barghouti demands an end to the occupation of 1967, he demands a repair of the injustice of 1948. The houses, the lands, everything that was lost.
For almost 20 years I have been keeping track of the Palestinian demand for return, and of the way in which my colleagues, the Middle East experts, find it difficult to report on the Palestinian demand for return. And I have been keeping track of the way in which my friends, the peace activists, find it difficult to deal with the seriousness of the Palestinian demand for return. Nevertheless, even I remained open-mouthed. There was something sensational about Mustafa Barghouti's willingness to toss the issue of return so blatantly into the international television arena. There was something depressing in Barghouti's decision to once again use - in English - the language of the Palestinian claims of the 1960s and 1970s.
It's true that the doctor from Ramallah is known as a tough ideologue. But he is not a member of Hamas. He is not a fundamentalist and he is not a terrorist. His face is that of the young Palestinian democracy. His voice is that of modern Palestine, with which Israel is supposed to conduct talks. But now, in the CNN studios, this voice is taking the Israeli-Palestinian discussion an entire generation backward. This voice once again demanded everything.
Is it only Mustafa Barghouti himself? The dedicated staff of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem did its homework. It found and translated the words of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), in honor of Nakba Day 2005 (May 15, "Catastrophe Day" for the Arabs, the day when Israel became a state): "Peace, security and stability in the Middle East are conditional on a just solution of our just problem. A solution based on the UN decisions that emphasized the right of our nation to establish an independent Palestinian state with its capital in the holy city of Jerusalem, and the finding of a just and agreed-on solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, according to UN Resolution 194 ... Everyone should be aware that our nation and our people in the refugee camps are opposed today, as they were opposed in the distant and recent past, to any form of hosting (the refugees). Therefore, we are making it clear to the countries that are hosting the Palestinian refugees that the presence of those refugees in those countries is temporary, until the time comes when the UN decisions are implemented."
Abu Mazen could not have been more direct: From his point of view, there will be no peace, there will be no security, and there will be no stability in the Middle East, either, without the active implementation of the right of return. Moreover, there is no connection between the establishment of the Palestinian state and a solution of the refugee problem. In addition, the chair of the PA promises the refugees that their presence in the host countries is temporary. The intention to resettle them in the places from which they were uprooted is practical, not rhetorical.
The Israeli intelligence community identified this change two months ago. Abu Mazen reached an agreement with Hamas in Cairo in mid-March. The Cairo Declaration included the following dramatic paragraph: "The participants emphasized their adherence to the Palestinian principles without any concession, as well as the right of the Palestinian nation to resist in order to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state ... and to guarantee the right of the refugees to return to their homes and their lands."
Why is it dramatic? For two reasons. First, because the declaration states that the Palestinians have a right to exercise violence against Israel until the implementation of the right of return. Second, because the declaration states that the right of return means a return to the actual homes. Not to the Palestinian state. Not to a reconstructed Gaza. To the green house in Sheikh Munis. To Lod and Ramle. To Acre and Jaffa and Safed. (Sheikh Munis is now the site of Tel Aviv University.)
Since the 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organization has not used such language. During the last 15 years of his life, Yasser Arafat did not dare to speak in such terms. But now, when Israel is about to begin the long journey to the end of the occupation, the old Palestinian language is returning. Now of all times, under the leadership of the prince of peace, Abu Mazen, the Palestinian demand is once again a total one. While Israel is agonizingly progressing toward the two-state solution, the Palestinians are retreating from it.
There is only one way to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace: 1948 in exchange for 1967. The right of self-definition in return for a surrender of the right of return. Therefore, before his delayed visit to Washington, the United States must confront Abu Mazen with a clear choice: a state or a dream; peace or return.
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