Thursday, March 15, 2007

Celebrate the Right of no Return

The Lost Five Years of the Peace Process
By Akiva Eldar

"......Since March 2001, Steinberg has been reading every word written in Arabic about the peace initiative. He has found that the Arab League is not proposing withdrawal first and normalization afterward, but rather arriving at both of them simultaneously. "Anyone who demands that normalization will lead to a withdrawal cannot negate a demand that the withdrawal will be a condition for the normalization."

Steinberg is not proposing that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert start negotiations with the government of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on the basis of the Arab initiative. "The Mecca agreement gives Abu Mazen the power of attorney to conduct the negotiations," he says. "Olmert meets with Abu Mazen anyway. The question is not with whom to speak but rather about what to talk."

To demonstrate this last argument, Steinberg plucks a quotation from remarks made by Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh's advisor, in the most recent edition of the London-based A Sharq al Awsat. "Ideological changes can be expected in Hamas' thought, as we are prepared to relate positively to the Arab peace initiative, on condition that Israel sticks to it. Something that hasn't happened thus far," said Yousef. Steinberg believes that the Arab initiative is even more important today than it was five years ago. "Back then it had mainly an internal Palestinian context, whereas today this text is relevant to an external-regional context. It embodies not only a solution to the Palestinian problem but also reinforces the Sunni Arab center. And furthermore, the regional support can make it easier for the Palestinians to come to terms with concessions they cannot digest on their own."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is demanding that the leaders of the 22 Arab states, who will convene at the end of the month in Riyadh in order to re-ratify the Arab League's peace initiative, excise the right of return from it. Unlike the Clinton outline (which proposes realizing the right of return in the Palestinian state), the Arab initiative does not mention this phrase, which frightens Israel. But Livni argues that the problematic term is hidden in the phrase "on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194," in the final section of the Arab League proposal, which calls for arriving at a "just and agreed upon solution to the refugee problem."

Only a little less than a year ago, when Livni was trying to win people over to the disengagement plan, she gloried in a letter United States President George W. Bush had given to Ariel Sharon on the matter of the refugees, in which he pledged that when the refugee issue comes up in negotiations, the United States will support the realization of the right of return only in the Palestinian state that will be established in the territories and not in the territory of the state of Israel. At the time this letter was considered a great achievement on Sharon's part. The official mustering of the United States on Israel's side on the issue of the right of return in effect renders the discussion of the interpretation of Resolution 194 academic.

Professor Ruth Lapidot, who was the legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years, doesn't understand why Israeli politicians are clinging by their teeth to the right of return. In a position paper she published in 2003 on behalf of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Lapidot argues that there is no basis to the Arab claim that Resolution 194 grants them the right of return. She explains that the option of return is conditioned on the Palestinians who want to return to their homes being interested in living in peace with their neighbors. This condition, notes Lapidot, has not been fulfilled since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000.

Lapidot agrees with Professor Geoffrey R. Watson, who was a member of the legal team at the U.S. State Department, in his interpretation of the sentence in Resolution 194, stating that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest possible date." The two experts agree that the use of the word "should" (as opposed to the word "shall," for example) turns the option of return into a mere recommendation.

In his book "The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements" (Oxford University Press), Watson notes that even the Palestinian delegation to the General Assembly argued that the phrase "should be permitted" does not concord with the right of return. This is a General Assembly resolution, which unlike Security Council resolutions, is not operative and is not binding.

The greatest critics of Livni's version asserting that the Arab peace initiative ensures the right of return can be found among the Hamas leadership and the heads of Al-Qaida. In an official reaction to the Arab League decision in Beirut, Hamas stated, "It is necessary to condemn outright the transfer of the issue of the right of return to the negotiating table and the demand for its implementation by means of a mutual understanding with Israel." Half a year ago Khaled Meshal's deputy Musa Abu Marzuq explained in a newspaper interview that one of the main reasons for Hamas' decision to reject the diplomatic initiatives that have cropped up in recent years, including the Arab initiative, is that "a solution that does not include the return of all the refugees to their homes and their property is untenable." He argued that the Arab League's decision puts an end to this sacred right....."


And now, just six months later, the very same Mesh'al and Marzuq are ecstatic about that same "Arab initiative" and Hamas can't write enough praise of the Arab "leaders" and how much hope is riding on their coming summit.

Amazing, isn't it? It shows you how much can be done with a mere billion Saudi dollars.

Palestinians: Celebrate THE RIGHT OF NO RETURN!

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