The John Kerry-Martin Indyk negotiating team needs to come to terms with the fact that the crux of the Middle East conflict is rooted in the Palestinian “Right of Return,” the collective demand claiming a legal and moral right for Palestinian refugees, and more importantly, for their descendants from around the world, to return to ancestral homes in Israel that were once part of Mandatory Palestine. The “right of return” is central to Palestinian national identity and is the barrier to any successful peace agreement.
Indyk is very aware from his past involvement in Camp David in 2000 that insisting on the Palestinian Right of Return is a clear non-starter for Israel as it is mostly used to deflect attention from the real hard honest talks. The real issues include mutual recognition then a discussion about land swaps.
While it maybe easier or convenient at times to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is purely territorial, a closer look at the reality reveals that Palestinian rejectionism of a Jewish State at large is what prolongs the conflict rather than the question of Jerusalem or the borders of 1949 or 1967. To that end, the Palestinian identity as perpetual refugees has become UNRWA’s raison d'être.
Consequently, those hoping to see genuine progress in this next round of negotiations face two major obstacles: UNRWA’s anomalous treatment of the Palestinian refugees which prolongs the conflict; and, second, the lack of an independent Palestinian identity which is not anti-Zionist at its core. Both have enabled UNRWA to become an integral fixture in Palestinian society that fuels the conflict rather than defuses it.
Recently, the Guardian exposed a perversion in a report about global refugee trends by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the report, the agency omits the Palestinian refugees in counting up the numbers of refugees worldwide. Further, the Guardian correctly noted that, “perhaps mentioning the Palestinian refugees might raise in people's minds the question as to how it was that almost 5 million people and their descendants … became refugees.”
Such inquiries clearly would question UNRWA’s role in perpetuating and expanding the number of Palestinian refugees worldwide rather than decreasing its clientele -- something its sister agency UNHCR, which has a more pragmatic definition of refugees, actually does.
There is a clear political agenda in having generation upon generation of Palestinians repeating the fallacies of 1948. It is remarkable that even the UNHCR seems to recognize this absurdity.
Yet the agency has managed to keep itself in business for the past 65 years convincing the world that the Palestinians are “special.” As such agency officials have continually promised a right of return as UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness pointed out in 2011, “established principles and practice—as well as realities on the ground—clearly refute the argument that the right of return of Palestine refugees would disappear or be abandoned if UNHCR were responsible for these refugees.”
As Palestinian “refugeeness” above all is synonymous with Palestinian national identity it has been worn as a “badge of honor” and an evergreen reminder of the Nakba – the supposed catastrophe of Israel’s birth. In this story the Arabs of Palestinian are blameless and have no responsibility whatsoever for their unfortunate destiny; their own decisions and those of their leaders, go unmentioned.
In fact historically, the Arab world has a significant amount of responsibility for the situation, having encouraged and facilitated the refugees' flight – to a large degree. But in this narrative it is none other than the UN and UNRWA who are the toxic enablers who are now helping fuel this story for generations.
Why UNRWA does this is evident: Its continued existence is at jeopardy. It has every reason to entangle itself into Palestinian society and to become more of an obstruction to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. It is exactly for this very reason that if these renewed talks are going to have any chance of success both Washington and Jerusalem need to learn from past mistakes and leverage the significant amount of dollars we have poured into UNRWA which only perpetuates the problem and look for real solutions starting with ending the right of return.
Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.