The Problem Isn’t in Palestinian Numbers
Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted out a number this week -- <200,000 -- that he says is the State Department estimate of “original” Palestinian refugees from 1948-50 still living. They are differentiated from the descendants of those people, which the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) says is 5,663,790. UNRWA’s numbers are notoriously unreliable, but go with it for a moment. That means there are 5,463,790 extras -- more or less.
The incoming administration has made it clear that it hopes to restore aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), cut off by the State Department for Palestinian financial mismanagement and support for terrorism. There are also reports that the Biden team wants to reopen the PLO Washington office and to increase its contact with the PA in Ramallah. Restoration of the “peace process” is, clearly, on the agenda. But therein lies the dilemma for the U.S. and the irrelevance of the number of actual Palestinian refugees.
The notion of a “peace process” presumes that “peace” is the goal. The “two-state solution,” postulates Palestinian acceptance of a split, rump state squeezed in between a hostile Israel and a more hostile Jordan. That they accept that Acre, Jaffa, and the Galilee Triangle will be sovereign territory in the Jewish homeland; Jerusalem, too. Hamas and Fatah, however, are clear about three goals.
- An independent state without recognizing a legitimate and permanent State of Israel in any territory. Both factions would accept a temporary agreement with Israel on the way to the fulfillment of the PLO Charter to which both are committed. (Reading the Charter will tell you what else they are committed to, and it isn’t a “two-state solution.”)
- Sovereign control of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
- The right of entry for all remaining 1948–1950 Arab refugees from Britain’s Mandatory Palestine, as well as their descendants, to any place within pre-1967 Israel in which they or their antecedents claim to have lived.
The possible outcomes of the Palestinian refugee issue are also only three: to allow them to go to Israel as they choose (the so-called "right of return"); to formulate their resettlement (and compensation) in the new State of Palestine; or formulate their resettlement (and compensation) somewhere else. The first means the dissolution of the State of Israel. Only in the other scenarios would the actual number of people be important.
The problem for American diplomacy is that the Palestinians have rejected the second and third outcomes. Out loud. Often.
Until recently, Palestinian intransigence was supported by Arab State leadership that believed perpetual warfare against Israel served their own political and military ends. The core issue was never jobs or civil society or drinking water -- or even a state -- for the Palestinians; it was never about Palestinians at all. It was about Arab failure to accept the reality of their 1948 losses and recognize the legitimacy and permanence of the State of Israel. “Secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force,” [UNSCR 242] was always the obligation of Arab States to Israel, not Palestinians.
Recent events -- including Iran, the failures of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration response to Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and Iran -- made Arab (and African) leaders reconsider their own interests. Adding to that was an American administration that saw Iran the way they did and proved itself to be not a neutral broker between disparate parties, but a reliable friend and ally. To Israel.
It seemed wise to be on that side.
The Biden administration will have to deal with Arabs and Israelis who share regional interests – the movement of Israel to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reflects that -- that may not coincide with the new president’s desire to engage Iran. But how can the administration advance its view of Middle East diplomacy without abandoning the Palestinian framework it so assiduously promoted under the Obama administration?
It can take a page from its predecessor.
In the announcement of the American “Vision for Peace,” outlined at the White House just about a year ago, President Trump told the Palestinians that American support for Palestinian statehood would require that the Palestinians “meet the challenges of peaceful coexistence,” to wit:
- Adopt basic laws ensuring basic human rights and protecting against financial and political corruption.
- Stop malign activities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- End incitement against Israel, and
- Permanently halt financial compensation to terrorists.
Let’s face it, that is a very low bar for civilized behavior, and the Biden people should be able to get behind it.
The ability to move forward is not in the hands of Joe Biden, not in the hands of the EU or the Quartet, and not even in the hands of the Israeli government. As it has been for decades, the ability lies only with the Palestinians themselves. The number of original Palestinian refugees remaining, and their descendants, is important for financial reasons, but the real barrier to resolving the status of Palestinian people, however many there are, is not in the numbers.