White House adviser Jared Kushner said on Wednesday the United States is willing to engage with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but hinted a new peace plan might call on Palestinian refugees to settle where they are and not return to lands now in Israel.
At a workshop in Bahrain last week, Kushner unveiled a $50 billion economic plan for the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. On Wednesday, he said he would have more to say about the way forward on the economic plan “probably next week.”
Sometime later this year, he is to outline a 50- to 60-page page plan that will offer proposals on resolving the thorny political issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Palestinians have harshly criticized the economic plan.
In a conference call with reporters, Kushner said U.S. President Donald Trump is “very fond” of Abbas and willing to engage with him at the right time.
“Our door is always open to the Palestinian leadership,” Kushner said.
He said he believes Abbas wants peace but “certain people around him are very uncomfortable with the way we’ve approached this, and their natural reaction is to attack and say crazy things” that are not constructive.
But Kushner’s comments on Palestinian refugees are likely to raise concerns among Palestinians.
Whether the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding, which with their descendants now number around 5 million, will exercise a right of return has been among the thorniest issues in decades of difficult diplomacy.
Israel has long ruled out any such influx as destabilizing, arguing that refugees should stay where they are or in a future Palestinian state. But prospects of such a state arising in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip are themselves in doubt.
Asked by a Lebanese reporter whether the United States hoped Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees would accept them permanently in exchange for funding, Kushner declined to answer directly, saying the matter would be addressed later.
But he suggested a comparison between Jews displaced from Middle Eastern countries in 1948, many of whom Israel took in.
“Look, you have a situation when this whole thing started where you had 800,000 Jewish refugees that came out of all the different Middle Eastern countries and you had 800,000, roughly, Palestinian refugees,” he said .
“And what’s happened to the Israeli - to the Jewish - refugees, is they have been absorbed by different places whereas the Arab world has not absorbed a lot of these refugees over time,” he said.
“I think that the people of Lebanon would love to see a resolution to this issue, one that is fair,” he said.
“And I also think that the refugees, the Palestinian refugees who are in Lebanon, who are denied a lot of rights and who, you know, don’t have the best conditions right now would also like to see a situation where there is a pathway for them to have more rights and to live a better life.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long suggested a demographic tradeoff between Jewish and Palestinian refugees.
Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said during a Jerusalem visit last week that Washington has its own figure for Palestinian refugees.
“The number of actual Palestinian refugees is classified,” she told a conference hosted by the conservative Israel Hayom newspaper. “There are multiple people working to get it unclassified.”