Two Israel analysts, one liberal and one conservative, focus on one of the cardinal mistakes in President Obama’s speech. Alan Dershowitz writes:
Any proposed peace agreement will require the Palestinians to give up the so-called right of return, which is designed not for family reunification, but rather to turn Israel into another Palestinian state with an Arab majority. As all reasonable people know, the right of return is a non-starter. It is used as a “card” by the Palestinian leadership who fully understand that they will have to give it up if they want real peace. The Israelis also know that they will have to end their occupation of most of the West Bank (as they ended their occupation of Gaza) if they want real peace. Obama’s mistake was to insist that Israel give up its card without demanding that the Palestinians give up theirs.
Obama’s mistake is a continuation of a serious mistake he made early in his administration. That first mistake was to demand that Israel freeze all settlements. The Palestinian Authority had not demanded that as a condition to negotiations. But once the President of the United States issued such a demand, the Palestinian leadership could not be seen by its followers as being less Palestinian than the President. In other words, President Obama made it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to be reasonable. Most objective observers now recognize Obama’s serious mistake in this regard. What is shocking is that he has done it again. By demanding that Israel surrender all the territories it captured in the 1967 war (subject only to land swaps) without insisting that the Palestinians surrender their right of return, the President has gone further than Palestinian negotiators had during various prior negotiations. This makes it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to be reasonable in their negotiations with the Israelis.
Likewise, Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, explains that 1,600 internal Palestinian documents (the “Palestine Papers”) make clear what is at the root of the conflict: the right of return, not settlements:
The refugee question is inseparable from a neglected aberration in international law. For all peoples but one, international law defines a refugee as a person forced to live outside the country of his origin. For Palestinians alone, international law treats refugee status as passed down from parents to children. Consequently, while between 500,000 and 710,000 Palestinians fled Israel in 1948 when five Arab armies invaded the newly-declared Jewish state, international law today recognizes approximately seven million Palestinian refugees.
As the “The Palestine Papers and the Right of Return” documents (pp. 7-9), for the last ten years Palestinian negotiators — led since 2004 by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (who resigned after it was determined that the documents published by Al Jazeera were leaked from his office) — sought a formula that guarantees an individual right of return to the state of Israel inhering in each of the seven million Palestinians on whom international law confers refugee status. The vast majority never lived in Israel.
The right of return therefore should be understood as the extermination of a Jewish state. Berkowitz explains: “The question of refugees, moreover, is much more than, as the president described it in his State Department speech, a ‘wrenching’ issue. Palestinian dedication to a right, with no precedent under international law, inhering in seven million Palestinians to establish residence in the state of Israel has been and remains the overriding obstacle to a secure and lasting peace.”
So what did Obama do? He delinked the right of return and return of territories. Israel’s bargaining power is eliminated because Obama gave it to Abbas despite his stated intention this week to continue war against the Jewish state. What have the Palestinians given up? Nothing. Obama offered sympathy but didn’t even suggest that the Palestinians had to jettison that central obstacle to peace.
I suppose we could attribute this ham-handed move as incompetence. But with the settlements and now with the 1967 borders we see that the concessions are always asked of one side. You don’t suppose Obama is fixated on the idea that Israel is the obstacle to peace, do you?