The Two Elephants in the Negotiating Room

The Palestinian leadership often repeats that the right of return for Palestinian refugees is sacred, so why does everyone ignore this major challenge to the peace process?

In an interview with Maariv at the end of August, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), a senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority official, was asked if he sees “a scenario in which Palestinian refugees … return to Tel Aviv.” His answer: “We want to reach a situation in which a refugee will have a choice. So that we can ask each of them: What do you want – to remain where you are today? To return to the Palestinian Authority? Do you want to go back to Israel?”

We ought to pay attention to these remarks, the likes of which are said time and time again by senior Palestinian officials. The principle they are after means, in practice, the mass migration, over time, of the 1948 refugees and their descendents to Israel – due to personal or nationalist reasons, or because of the status of refugee situation in Arab countries, and the vast economic gap between Israel and its neighbors. This Palestinian demand is the opposite of resolving the conflict and the opposite of the two-state solution.

There is one way to check whether in the end the Palestinian leadership would be willing to give up this demand. Keep in mind that the question is not what Palestinians officials secretly understand to be the limits of what’s possible. The question is whether they are capable of signing a peace treaty that does not include the “sacred right of return,” which they swear to their people to uphold.

The only way to test this is to offer a package deal: a Palestinian state with borders based on pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps, according to Barack Obama’s formula, which the Palestinians have accepted, and the right of return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel, in the spirit of the “Clinton parameters,” which Yasser Arafat refused in his time. The present Israeli government will not offer this, but the United States should and doing so put both sides to the test.

Meanwhile, anyone who supports the right of both peoples to independence must address this issue seriously, and not take for granted that the only thing that stands between us and peace is the Israeli occupation since 1967.

Statements made by the Palestinians over the years indicate that through negotiations they hope to achieve four goals with regard to the refugees. First, they want an Israeli declaration in a peace treaty that Israel takes full responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem – not partial responsibility, but full responsibility. There is no Palestinian readiness to accept any responsibility for their actions in 1948-49, nor is there any plan to let bygones be bygones and to deal only with the future.

Second, Israel is being asked to accept the principle of the right of return, based on the choice of the refugees and their descendents. Third, Israel is being asked to absorb as many refugees as possible, not a symbolic number. In this matter the Palestinians know they will have to compromise, which is why they are apparently hinting at willingness to compromise. But the fourth Palestinian aspiration is that any number that is agreed upon will not be final: After the first quota is covered within a few years, they can demand an additional quota, for future years, in accordance with the general principle of “the right of choice” that will be included in the agreement. The Palestinian leadership will be able to thus claim that it did not compromise on the sacred right of return, but only agreed on a gradual implementation.

It’s customary to say there’s an elephant in the negotiating room everyone is ignoring – Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank. But the truth is there are two elephants in the room. One is the elephant that opponents of the occupation justifiably say cannot be ignored. But the second elephant is one that they themselves too often ignore.