I wouldn’t expect the Obama administration to take advice from ideological rivals on how to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. But it’s puzzling that it remains equally deaf to advice from two prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
In a moderated conversation published this month, Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh were in complete accord:
OZ: … [T]he first issue we need to deal with is the refugee issue, because this one is really urgent. Jerusalem is not urgent, it can wait. It can go unresolved for another generation, it can be unresolved for three generations. The refugees are hundreds of thousands of people decomposing in dehumanizing conditions in refugee camps. Israel cannot take these refugees back or it would not be Israel. There would be two Palestinian states, and there would be no Israel. But Israel can do something, along with the Arab world, along with the entire world, to take those people out of the camps, into homes and jobs. Peace or no peace, as long as the refugees are rotting in the camps Israel will have no security.
NUSSEIBEH: I agree. Whether there is or isn’t a solution, the refugee problem is a human problem and it needs to be resolved. It cannot just be shelved day after day after day in the hope that something will happen. The human dimension is far more important in this whole conflict than the territorial.
Yet Obama’s team remains fixated on “borders first.” That’s ridiculous on several counts. First, since territory is all that Israel has to trade, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be foolish to make all his territorial concessions up front, leaving him without leverage to extract crucial Palestinian concessions on other issues, like the refugees.
Second, since two previous Israeli leaders, Ehud Barak (at Taba) and Ehud Olmert, were that foolish, the entire world ought to know by now that Israel twice offered the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories (with land swaps). Those offers went nowhere because the Palestinians refused to make reciprocal concessions on other issues — especially the refugees.
Specifically, the Palestinians insist that Israel absorb millions of refugees and their descendants under any deal, thereby eradicating the Jewish state by demography. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated this in the Guardian just last week; the governing body of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s “moderate” Fatah party did so last month.
Until this changes, any territorial concessions Netanyahu offers will be meaningless, because no Israeli government will sign a deal that effectively spells the Jewish state’s death warrant. But if the refugee issue were resolved, Netanyahu would either make a generous territorial offer or face certain ouster in the next election. Thus, if Washington actually wants a deal, this is the place to start.
Finally, as Oz and Nusseibeh noted, this is a human tragedy that has already been left to fester far too long. That Palestinian leaders have held the refugees hostage to their maximalist demands for over six decades shows just how little they really care about their own people. And for all its fine talk of human rights, the “enlightened West” is evidently no better.