By Ali Badwan
Leaks from Washington and those involved in the inner circles of the peace negotiations suggest that the right of return for Palestinian refugees is on the point of being sacrificed. The US is insisting that anyone agreeing to negotiate with Israel must abandon this fundamental issue. The right of return is, literally, reaching a point of no return; the pun is definitely intended.
The US position is consolidated by that of Israel itself. In his speech at the opening session of the direct negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted the "Jewish nature" of the state of Israel and different ways that this can be made manifest on the ground; he called on the Palestinian negotiators to abandon the refugees' right to return to their land, from which they or their ancestors have been driven out since 1948. An explicit acknowledgement of the "Jewish state" would have the effect of turning Palestinians inside Israel into non- or second-class citizens, preparing the way for their "silent transfer" across the border, completing the ethnic cleansing that started in 1948.
According to some sources, the Americans have been pulling the strings to rearrange "old ideas and make them sound better than they actually are", and still reject the right of return. This has the effect of turning the refugees' cause into a humanitarian issue, not one of basic human and legal rights. Any "permanent solution", it seems, will be reached without Palestinian refugees returning to their homeland. The team behind the so-called Aix en Provence document, published by Ha'aretz in November 2007, suggested that compensation be offered instead; the cost would be somewhere between $55-85 billion and refugees would settle in their current countries of refuge. A similar proposal surfaced at the start of the latest talks in Washington.
It is clear that there is unease among Palestinians at such suggestions which marginalise refugees' legal and moral rights. In "downgrading" the Palestinian issue from the core of refugees' and their rights, the proponents also seek to bypass UN Resolution 194 (agreed in 1949) which even then called for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their homes and receive compensation.
Just before the latest round of negotiations began, Western diplomatic sources revealed US contacts within the Middle East intended to find a way forward. Proposals to do away with the right of return have been around for many years, of course, but in the past they have always been met with strong Palestinian and, indeed, Arab, opposition.
Netanyahu's coalition government pre-empted the recent Washington negotiations through press leaks from, for example, his Minorities Affairs Minister, Avishay Braverman, who said that there were already agreements with the Palestinian negotiator on many issues, including the right of return; doors would, he said, be left open for the return of refugees in certain "humanitarian cases".
What is happening behind the scenes in this respect is of concern, because the last word on this must rest with the Palestinian people themselves, for it is they who will have to bear any loss. On this, the tenth anniversary year of the Second – Al-Aqsa – Intifada, it should be remembered that the uprising took place in part out of frustration at the accumulated negativity and setbacks created by the so-called peace process at the time. The Palestinians will not stay silent if their negotiators take a pragmatic route and bury their rights under a cloud of smoke and mirrors like some second-rate conjuror's trick.
The launching of direct negotiations without any pre-agreed framework, the ongoing settlement expansion and theft of Palestinian land and unconditional US support for Israel do not bode well for a two-state solution. The logical result is a situation whereby the Zionist state creates a fragmented, apartheid-like entity in various non-contiguous sections of the West Bank and calls it "Palestine".
The Israelis should know that apartheid in South Africa came to an end, with a genuine democracy wherein all people are equal. The Zionist vision of a Greater Israel and Palestinian "Bantustans" is no way to proceed; history may well repeat itself.
Ali Badwan is a Palestinian writer and member of the Union of Arab Writers
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.