“I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen.”
— Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, May 20, 2011
While much of the focus on Obama’s Middle East speech Thursday was on his reference to the “1967 lines,” a less noticed aspect of his address was how he dealt with the question of where Palestinian refugees should settle after a possible peace deal.
He didn’t. And that clearly hit a nerve with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In his speech, the president put the issue of Palestinian refugees to the side, saying that negotiations should focus first on the questions of borders and security.
“I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees,” Obama said.
Compare that phrasing to what then-President George W. Bush said in a 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
Or how then-President Bill Clinton tackled the subject in 2001: “A solution will have to be found for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered a great deal — particularly some of them. A solution that allows them to return to a Palestinian state that will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home. … We cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of the state of Israel, and would undermine the whole logic of peace.”
So it was interesting when Netanyahu emerged from his lengthy meeting with Obama on Friday and devoted much more attention to the question of the Palestinian refugees than he did to the dispute over the 1967 boundaries. Here is his full statement on the subject:
But a third reality is that the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state but certainly not in the borders of Israel. The Arab attack in 1948 on Israel resulted in two refugee problems, Palestinian refugee problem and Jewish refugees, roughly the same number, who were expelled from Arab lands. Now tiny Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, but the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees.
Now, 63 years later, the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel: accept the grandchildren, really, and the great-grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel's future as a Jewish state.
So that's not going to happen. Everybody knows it's not going to happen. And I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen.
The Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved. It can be resolved. And it will be resolved if the Palestinians choose to do so in Palestinian state. That's a real possibility. But it's not going to be resolved within the Jewish state.
Note the phrase: “I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen.” That seems like a clear message to Obama.
The president is to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday. It will be very interesting to see whether Obama broaches the subject of Palestinian refugees differently than in his speech.