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Letter from London: A Palestinian Moral and Political Failure

8:01 AM, Sep 9, 2011 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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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.

abbas and obama

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. 

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