It took a day or two, but as those who follow the issue will know there has been a torrent of condemnation of outgoing UNRWA New York representative Andrew Whitley for his recent comments at NCUSAR on the political feasibility of large-scale refugee return to Israel in the aftermath of any future peace agreement. UNRWA has disavowed the comments. Both the PLO and PA have condemned them. So has Hamas. So has Jordan. Even the Arab League has jumped on the bandwagon.
Now Al-Awda (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition) has issued an “Action Alert” calling for his immediate dismissal , claiming that “As a UN official, Mr Wiltley [sic] undermined the integrity and the credibility of UNRWA and exposed himself as the enemy of the people he is supposed to serve.”
Whitley has apologized today for the comments, in a letter to UNRWA:
3 November 2010
Dear Mr. Gunness,
I am writing following my realisation – from media reports, statements and letters from individuals, organisations and governments – that part of the remarks I delivered at a conference in Washington hosted by the National Council on US – Arab Relations, on 22 October, 2010, were inappropriate and wrong. Those remarks did not represent UNRWA’s views. I express my sincere regrets and apologies over any harm that my words may have done to the cause of the Palestine refugees and for any offence I may have caused. I have spent much of my long career working for the Palestinian people, and defending their rights, in different professional capacities. It is definitely not my belief that the refugees should give up on their basic rights, including the right of return. I wish to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA, an organisation I have been proud to serve since July 2002. The Agency is at liberty to use my statement in whatever ways it sees fit. There is no need for a reply.
A few quick thoughts on all of this:
- Anyone considering a career at the UN, the World Bank, or similar international organizations should take this as an object lesson in the dangers of telling the truth mindless of the diplomatic consequences. I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way, moreover: reporting as you do to a fractured and fractious international community, you are constantly walking a diplomatic tightrope.
- There is more than a little irony in the PA, PLO, Jordan, and the Arab League condemning Whitley for expressing what is their own implicit policy. The Arab Peace Initiative (2002), after all specifically makes any refugee agreement conditional on Israeli agreement: “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.” They adopted that language knowing full well that Israel would never accept an unlimited right of return, and equally knowing that neither Israel nor much of the international community believes that UNGAR 194 actually contains a “right of return.” This isn’t to say that the PA/PLO aren’t seeking Israeli recognition of the right—they are. But they really aren’t expecting that the bulk of refugees would ever be able to exercise it. (If you need further evidence, look at the language adopted in the unofficial Geneva Initiative, which was written in large part by former and current PA/PLO officials. In that draft agreement, return to Israel is—as in the Clinton Parameters—largely determined by “Israel’s sovereign discretion.”)
- For al-Awda to condemn Andrew Whitley as an “enemy of the people” is beyond stupid. They may strongly believe that a serving UN official shouldn’t speak out on these issues without a clear mandate to do so—fair enough, on that I agree. They may certainly strongly disagree with his analysis. But are they saying that thoughtful, well informed, and sympathetic individuals should withhold from refugees (and others) their analytical conclusions if those differ from the politically correct orthodoxy? And does expressing such views suddenly make you an “enemy of the people” (a rather dangerous term to be throwing around in the contentious atmosphere of the Arab-Israeli conflict)?