Suddenly, all the potential collaborators on an eleventh-hour peace deal between Israel and anybody else have lost heart. The Syrians are emphasizing their commitment to the resistance. Hizbullah is saying it will not disarm even if Israel gives up the disputed Shaaba Farms area of the Golan Heights. Hamas is upping its demands for prisoners released in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But what is probably perturbing Ehud Olmert most is the Palestinian Authority. PA chief Mahmud Abbas is talking about how unlikely any peace deal is right now. And he’s using the most disheartening of terms, speaking of the Palestinian “right of return” as an “inalienable” right that will have to be part of any deal.
For those of you unfamiliar with the local code words, the “right of return” is a term (borrowed, as with so many other Palestinian arguments, from Zionism) referring to all those millions of Palestinians currently in refugee camps around the Middle East. The Palestinians claim that they should be allowed to “return” — not to Palestinian controlled territories in their new independent state, but to the villages that their parents and grandparents came from within what is today Israel.
If it seems odd, even unheard-of, that refugees should be calling a “right” to reclaim residence in places where their grandparents lived, it is because no other refugees on earth have such a right. Due to a quirk of history, all the world’s other refugees are protected and defended under the UN High Commission on Refugees, the goal of which is to find humanitarian solutions to actual refugees who have been forced to leave their homes in war — either through absorption or repatriation. Palestinians, on the other hand, fall under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was created just for them, using a totally different definition of refugees tailor-made to fit their own political agenda: Giving refugee status across multiple generations, and never endorsing any solution other than “return.”
But the real problem with the Palestinian “right of return” is not its unfairness. Nor is it the fact that a longing for Palestinian freedom and independence would suggest that Palestinians would actually want to live in the Palestinian state, not in Israel, making the “right of return” into a fundamental changing of the subject and blurring of their goals. The real problem is, rather, the simple and clear fact that no Israeli government, left or right, will ever agree to it. As I mentioned recently, there is nothing so likely to push the Israeli population to reject any peace deal, virulently and unambiguously, than the insistence that they absorb hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians. It is so transparently a non-starter that one senses that it is being raised principally in order to prevent any deal from ever happening — thereby reinforcing the sense that many Israelis have felt since the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000, that Palestinians never really wanted peace in the first place. Israelis who pursue peace negotiations insist that when push comes to shove, the Palestinians will give up on their right of return. No Palestinian leader has ever even hinted at this, nor is it clear that they ever could.
Today, Israeli police are likely to recommend to the Attorney General that Prime Minister Olmert be indicted. His resignation will happen within the next couple of weeks, coinciding with his party’s picking a new chairman. Arab leaders have nothing to gain now from pretending to negotiate with Olmert’s government. They need to reassure their own populations that they are not giving in to the Zionist enemy. He will not get the sudden breakthrough that was the only hope he had for keeping his head above political water. He will no longer be the “etrog.”