London—Several days of Middle East discussions in London have not contributed to any sense of optimism about the near, or for that matter medium-range, future on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It did not appear to the officials with whom I spoke that PA president Mahmoud Abbas can be persuaded to drop his foolish U.N. gambit. The only good news was that the UK will, this fall, adopt laws protecting Israeli officials from the politicized prosecutions that have kept them out of Britain.
No one, official or "expert," had a solid answer to what comes after September's folly at the U.N. Abbas will be forced by public opinion, or at least by Hamas and other extremist pressure, immediately to use any new options a U.N. reference to Palestinian statehood gives him—such as seeking International Criminal Court indictments of Israeli officials. The only effect will be to embitter relations between Israel and the PA and make cooperation more difficult even when it is in the interests of both sides. The refusal to see all of this is a great failure of leadership by Abbas, whose public opinion is not forcing him into this posture. Recent polls suggest that most Palestinians prefer negotiations and see the U.N. as a sideshow, so Abbas could have taken that view and faced down the extremists. He did not, and there is no evidence he will now, so we can expect the U.N. action to be the start of a nasty autumn. His declarations about non-violence are not going to stop large demonstrations from becoming violent if Hamas and others decide to provoke it. And Israeli officials are unlikely to go beyond the call of duty in cooperating with the PA if they are fighting both "lawfare" attacks and street violence.
But the larger and more depressing issue that emerged in a very useful conference at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute, was that of the refugees—the Palestinian refugees and the "right of return," which in turn is connected to the question of whether Palestinians will acknowledge and accept Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian official representatives here used every cheap argument in the book on these issues, including misrepresentation of the Israeli position. The demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a new Israeli precondition for negotiations, they said, and is blocking talks. That's false, Israeli officials replied; that recognition is our goal and our demand in negotiations, not a precondition to sitting down. This clear statement did not prevent PA/PLO officials from repeating their false claim over and over, including on the BBC.
Worse yet was the argument that the "right of return" is an individual right that the PA/PLO cannot waive in a peace treaty. If that is the firm Palestinian position when talks come—if they ever do—there is quite simply no chance for an agreement. For that position means the Palestinians would be insisting that each individual "refugee," a category they define to include those born in Israel before 1948 plus all their descendants no matter where or when they were born, has the right to move to Israel and each must decide for himself. No Israeli government will ever agree to this, and this demand constitutes a Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state—in fact, an intention to make its continued existence impossible.
It would be useful to clarify this point, asking the PA/PLO its precise view. Perhaps they will be willing to state that, even if they consider it a reasonable view, it is also wrong, and the PLO has the right to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians on all issues—borders, security, and the rights of "refugees," too. If they are not willing to state this, it should become the top priority of U.S. and E.U. diplomacy to take the issue up. Unless Palestinian leaders are clear on this issue, there will never be a peace agreement, so those diplomats dedicated to "the peace process" should stop wasting time on far smaller matters such as construction in settlements and focus on the "refugee" issue instead. Only when Palestinian leaders are willing publicly to say that the refugees are not going "home" to Israel, that as President Bush put it in 2004 "a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel," will we know they are serious about a peace agreement.
A related fundamental point, one that may seem esoteric but is in fact practical, is whether Palestinians are willing to acknowledge that Jews are a people. The assertion that Jews are "merely" a religious group is another way of saying that statehood is not deserved, for peoples or nations deserve a state, not religions. At recent conferences I have heard Palestinian spokesmen refer to their great respect for Judaism as a religion when asked about Jewish nationhood. This is a polite way of saying they continue to believe the existence of the state of Israel is wrong, just as insistence of the "right of return" suggests they are not reconciled to Israel's survival as a Jewish state.
One might say "relax, these are just negotiating positions. Why give them away until serious talks begin?" I wish I believed that. But so much of Palestinian (and wider Arab) political discourse continues to display anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel's existence that this view would be Pollyannaish—without even getting to the views of Hamas and similar terrorist groups.
This is in large part a failure of leadership, so long the Palestinian curse—from Haj Amin Al Husseini through Arafat to the Fatah crew today. Moderate views exist and moderate voices are heard. Those who understand the need to build their state from the bottom up do exist as well, have achieved a great deal, and do have serious popular backing. If the Fatah leaders took up the cause of building their own state instead of tearing down their neighbor's, peace could be achieved. All of which suggests that there is another failure of leadership, in the West. Not since President Bush frankly condemned Arafat in 2002 and said there would be no state until he was replaced by decent governance has any Western leader spoken with such candor. Instead, we have heard obsessive concern about real estate issues regarding construction and we have not heard much about the continued hate speech so widespread in Palestinian media. At a time when a broad consensus in Israel accepts the need for Palestinian statehood, this is a moral and political failure of historic proportions.