As US envoy George Mitchell heads to the Middle East, Israeli officials are using Saeb Erekat’s recent op ed on UNGAR 194 and the refugee issue to argue that the Palestinians are making peace more difficult. According to today’s Jerusalem Post:
With US Mideast envoy George Mitchell set to begin a new phase in the diplomatic process when he meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli officials reacted sharply on Sunday to recent “hard-line” Palestinian comments on the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948.
The refugee issue is one of the core issues – along with border and security, settlements, Jerusalem and water – that the US, as part of its new diplomatic track toward a framework agreement, will begin discussing intensively, but separately, with Israel and the Palestinians.
Mitchell is expected to shuttle in the coming days between the sides, as the direct talks have been shelved because of the Palestinian Authority’s adamant refusal to enter negotiations without an additional settlement freeze.
Responding to an op-ed piece written by chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat in The Guardian on Friday, one Israeli official said, “Erekat says he wants peace, but by pursuing a hard-line position on refugees, he is actually making peace more difficult.
“The international community and leading Palestinian moderates have all spoken about the need for the Palestinians to compromise on the traditional position on the refugees, but in his op-ed piece, Erekat reaffirmed the hard-line Palestinian position, and in doing so – rather than showing flexibility – has showed an unwillingness to compromise.” …
The response is far from unexpected, of course. Moreover, given the complete inflexibility the Netanyahu government has shown on the issue—not to mention its position on settlement activity, Jerusalem, and other things beside—the charge of Palestinian obstructionism is more than a little ironic.
Meanwhile, don’t be looking to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent policy speech at the Brookings Institution for indications of official US thinking on the issue, because you won’t find any:
We enter this phase with clear expectations of both parties. Their seriousness about achieving an agreement will be measured by their engagement on these core issues. And let me say a few words about some of the important aspects of these issues we will be discussing.
Second, on refugees. This is a difficult and emotional issue, but there must be a just and permanent solution that meets the needs of both sides. [emphasis added]
Yep, that’s all she said. Clinton did add, however, that the US may at some point inject its own ideas on resolving the main permanent status issues:
And in the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive two-way conversations with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement. The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate. [emphasis added]
In the almost 20 years of the peace process, the US has only done this on the refugee issue twice, at the end of the Clinton Administration in 2000, and then (in even less detail) briefly during the Bush Administration in 2007-08. Given the borders-first focus of recent talks, I doubt they’ll be doing it again very soon.