Israel challenges U.N. on Palestinian refugees

Israel questioned the use of the U.N. aid agency created exclusively for Palestinian refugees.

Addressing the United Nations in Geneva, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon argued Thursday against the two-tier system whereby Arabs displaced by the fighting in British Mandatory Palestine around the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and their descendants, are tended to by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, while other refugees must look collectively to the U.N High Commissioner for Refugees.

Israel has long argued that UNRWA perpetuates the conflict with the Palestinians, who insist on a “right of return” for their refugees to land now in Israel, whereas UNHCR has often worked to resettle its wards.

“While the UNHCR has found durable solutions for tens of millions of refugees, the agency created specifically for the Palestinian context, UNRWA, has found durable solutions for no one,” Ayalon said at the conference, according to a transcript circulated by his office.

“This has meant that a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remains further away. This is morally and politically unacceptable.”

Israel says Palestinian refugees should resettle in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or elsewhere. Israelis also have called on the international community to give consideration to the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries who were dispossessed during the 1948 war and were mostly taken in by Israel.

Europe Pushes Palestinian Interests

After what it sees as President Bush’s tilt toward Israel, the European Union is indicating that it wants to play a larger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — with an eye toward promoting Palestinian interests.

In a series of under-reported statements after Bush’s perceived watershed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, senior European officials have been hinting at greater European involvement on the ground and a new get-tough policy with Israel.

Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 21, Chris Patten, the E.U. commissioner for external relations, declared bluntly that the Europeans are ready to help rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after Israel’s promised withdrawal next year, on condition that the Israel Defense Forces guarantee "not to destroy again what we build."

Speaking in Tel Aviv the same day, Giancarlo Chevallard, E.U. ambassador to Israel, warned that the European Union intends to link the level of ties with Israel to the Jewish State’s "commitment to peacemaking."

Top European officials also have been meeting with their American counterparts to coordinate the precise role the union can play in the context of the Gaza withdrawal. This will be discussed further early next month at a meeting of the "Quartet" — a diplomatic grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia that produced the "road map" peace plan.

The European Union began its campaign for a more significant role in the Gaza process by sending Javier Solana, its foreign policy point man, to Washington for an April 20 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Afterward, Solana outlined three principles of E.U. thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Nothing should be done to prejudge the outcome of final-status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Quartet should coordinate its policy moves and the withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in an "appropriate manner."

All three principles implied criticism of Bush. In the European view, the American president prejudged issues of borders and refugees by saying the demographic realities on the ground — that is, Israeli settlements — should be taken into account in setting final borders, and that refugees should return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel.

Moreover, in declaring his "new" policy, Bush acted alone, without consulting his European partners, and did nothing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians.

Powell is taking the European sense of slight seriously. The day after his meeting with Solana, he approached Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos — who served for seven years as E.U. special envoy to the Middle East — urging him to help with the Gaza plan.

The Europeans would like to play a role in coordinating the withdrawal with the Palestinians. They maintain that this is essential if the pullback is to create a new peace dynamic.

Patten made the point in his address to the European Parliament: "Our aim must be that Israelis recognize again the Palestinian Authority as their partner in the peace process. The objective should be to hand over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority — not to Hamas — and to ensure that the handover takes place in an orderly fashion, not in a way that leads to more chaos and violence."

Patten suggests that the Europeans, rather than the Americans, could help bring the Palestinians into a positive process with Israel. It’s the Europeans, he points out, who more than anyone else have funded Palestinian projects; and it was constructive European influence that helped P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad achieve transparency and accountability on budget procedures, in line with economic reforms the Quartet demanded of the Palestinian Authority.

What seems to be shaping up is a complex carrot-and-stick policy in which the United States encourages Israel and puts pressure on the Palestinians, while the Europeans do the reverse. Patten made clear that Europe is prepared to continue its humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and help rebuild their economic infrastructure. But at the same time he was highly critical of Israel.

"We are certainly prepared to continue our humanitarian assistance and to support the rebuilding of the infrastructure of those areas from which the Israel Defense Forces withdraw," he said in Strasbourg.

The Europeans are not making do with mere criticism: They intend to use their economic clout to exert political pressure on Israel. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, and Israel has a preferential trade agreement with E.U. countries.

It took Israel years to negotiate the agreement, and for years it has been trying to upgrade it. Now the Europeans say bluntly that they intend to create a linkage between their economic ties with Israel and the way Israel deals with the Palestinian issue.

At his Tel Aviv news conference April 21, Chevallard declared, "Up till now we kept the strengthening of bilateral relations with Israel separate from the regional diplomatic process. From this point on they will be part of one complex."

He did not envision sanctions on Israel, but said the Europeans would enhance or downgrade their ties with Israel depending on its peacemaking performance.

He added that the Europeans expected that Israel would "recognize that the E.U. has a large role to play in the Middle East" and, in the future, he suggested that Israel consult not only with the United States, as it had on the Gaza plan, but with Europe as well.

Some Israeli analysts believe the Europeans may even suggest an alternative plan to the one Bush and Sharon agreed to in the White House.

It’s more likely, however, that they will seek a role within the framework of the Israeli-American plan and will use their support for the Palestinians to make inroads in the Arab world, where the United States is struggling, partly because of its support for Israel and partly because of the situation in Iraq.

World Briefs

Israel Asks U.S. Egypt Help in Gaza

The United States and Egypt want to know more about Israel’s proposal for Egypt to help secure Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser, discussed the idea Monday in meetings with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Israelis are ready for a total withdrawal, but say they need Egyptian help to keep arms smugglers from crossing the Gaza-Egypt border.

U.S. State Department official said the proposal was not fully worked out and that the Americans are waiting for further details. If the Egyptians are willing, the official said, the United States could help them with incentives.

Nadil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, said his country was interested in the proposal but needed to know more. Egypt would participate if the withdrawal were part of negotiations with the Palestinians, Fahmy told JTA.

“It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation,” he said. Israel has suggested that its withdrawal could be unilateral unless the Palestinians crack down on terrorism.

E.U. Presses Libya

The European Union called on Libya to join a free trade zone it has boycotted because of Israeli membership in the group. The European Commission said Monday that Tripoli immediately should send officials to Brussels to prepare its application to the group, whose purpose ultimately is to create a free-trade zone bringing together all the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi recently expressed a desire to join the process, but he cannot take part unless he agrees to recognize Israel.

Bush Sends $20 Million to UNRWA

President Bush is sending $20 million to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The new allocation, authorized Thursday, is from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund, and will be distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The request is a response to an appeal for $193 million for humanitarian needs for the Palestinian people, the State Department said.

Group Collects Money for Haitians

A Jewish group is collecting money for humanitarian aid
in Haiti. Donations can be sent to the American Jewish World Service at: AJWS,
Haiti Relief, 45 W. 36th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY, 10018, or online at

Who’s to Blame for Palestinian Despair?

Like many hothead progressives around the world, I preach
antiracism, teach multiculturalism and recognize the United States to
be a politically and culturally imperialistic society.

Proper revolutionary that I am, I have no problem with
guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes, and I fully recognize that
“terrorism” can be a political term used to invalidate the violent behavior of
one group and justify that of another.

One might say I’m an all-around, groovy radical. And yet,
I’ve got a major problem with compassion for Palestinian suicide bombers
blowing up Israeli citizens.

Sure, progressive folk cluck in sympathy when the leg of an
Israeli girl flies clear across a pizzeria or when the spine of an Israeli boy
gets sliced by shrapnel. This sound of distress, however, often is accompanied
by an undertone of accusation: It is Israel’s fault, the narrative goes, that
these tragedies happen; by creating Palestinian desperation, Israel has created
Palestinian terrorism.

Clearly, Palestinians are suffering, and their situation
must be remedied — the sooner the better. The question is, who was responsible
for creating their situation and who is accountable for remedying it?

The Arab world is called just that for a reason: Beginning
in the Arabian Peninsula about 1,300 years ago, Arab Muslims launched a brutal
campaign of invasion and conquest, taking over lands across the Middle East and
North Africa. Throughout the region, Kurds, Persians, Berbers, Copts and Jews
were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death and in the name of

Jews were one of the few indigenous Middle Eastern peoples
to resist conversion to Islam, the result being they were given the status of
dhimmi — legally second-class, inferior people. In the best of circumstances,
Jews were spared death but forced to endure an onslaught of humiliating legal
restrictions — forced into ghettos, prohibited from owning land, prevented from
entering numerous professions and forbidden from doing anything to physically
or symbolically demonstrate equality with Arab Muslims.

When dhimmi laws were lax and Jews were allowed to
participate to a greater degree in their society, the Jewish community would
flourish, both socially and economically. On numerous occasions, however, the
response to that success was a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews
instigated by the government or the masses.

This dynamic meant that the Jews lived in a basic state of
subservience: They could participate in the society around them, they could
enjoy a certain degree of wealth and status and they could befriend their Arab
Muslim neighbors, but they always had to know their place.

The Arab-Israel relationship and the current crisis occur in
the greater context of a history in which Arab Muslims have oppressed Jews for
1,300 years. Most recently, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world
in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jews were assaulted, tortured, murdered and forced to flee
from their homes of thousands of years. Throughout the region, Jewish property
was confiscated and nationalized, collectively worth hundreds of millions of
dollars at the time.

Yet the world has never witnessed Middle Eastern and North
African Jews blowing themselves up and taking scores of Arab innocents with
them out of anger or desperation for what Arab states did to the Jewish people.

Despite the fact that there were 900,000 Jewish refugees
from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we do not even hear about a
Middle Eastern/North African Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel
absorbed most of the refugees. For decades, they and their children have been
the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70 percent.

To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb refugees from
the war against Israel in 1948. Instead, they built squalid camps in the West
Bank and Gaza — at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt — and dumped the
refugees in them, Arabs doomed to become pawns in a political war against

Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and
Lebanon funded assaults against Israeli citizens instead of funding basic
medical, educational and housing needs of Palestinian refugee families.

In 1967, Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee problem
through a defensive war. When Israel tried to build housing for the refugees in
Gaza, Arab states led votes against it in U.N. resolutions, because absorption
would change the status of the refugees. But wasn’t that the moral objective?

Israel went on to give more money to the Palestinian
refugees than all but three of the Arab states combined, prior to transferring
responsibility of the territories to the Palestinian Authority in the
mid-1990s. Israel built hospitals and educational institutions for Palestinians
in the territories. Israel trained the Palestinian police force.

And yet, the 22 Arab states dominate both the land and the
wealth of the region. So who is responsible for creating Palestinian

Tragically, the Arab propaganda war against Israel has been
a brilliant success, laying on Israel all the blame for the Palestinian refugee
problem. By refusing to hold Arab states accountable for their own actions, by
feeling sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers instead of outrage at the Arab
propaganda creating this phenomenon, the “progressive” movement continues to
feed the never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East. Â

Loolwa Khazzoom is the editor of
“The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle
Eastern Jewish Heritage” (Seal Press), and she is an Israel correspondent for
the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. You can find her on the web at

‘Dreamers’ Still Hold Hope for Peace

Sometimes, they say, hope shines brightest in the darkest hours. Palestinians and Israelis have never been further apart in the past decade, with nearly 3,000 people killed in the two years of the Palestinian intifada.

Yet "the dreamers," as some call them, are still busy preparing peace plans, as if all that is needed to bring peace to the Holy Land are a few intelligent position papers. Many of the peace plans are the work of academics and would-be politicians.

Lacking the authority to implement their plans, the authors are free to combine fantasy with wishful thinking. However, among the "dreamers" are some with sound political records, and — perhaps more importantly — they represent Palestinian-Israeli collaboration.

While the plans may have little chance of being implemented in the near future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many examples where once-radical ideas slowly moved from the margins to the mainstream, finally becoming policy. Even the Oslo accords, which radically reshaped relations between the two parties and held out the prospect of peace, began in talks led by Israeli academics before the Israeli leadership offered its sponsorship.

Top on the list of "dreams" right now are the joint peace plans of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, on the one hand, and Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh on the other. Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords and a former justice minister, recently quit the Labor Party and joined Meretz. Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority minister of culture and information, is considered among the more moderate Palestinian figures.

Ayalon is a decorated commando, former commander of both the navy and the Shin Bet general security service and an outspoken dove. Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, holds the Palestinian Liberation Organizatio’s Jerusalem portfolio and is a longtime advocate of peace with Israel.

All four are respected figures, yet all represent a minority in their communities, without the power to initiate real change.

It’s not always easy to find the differences between the plans. Both call for many of the same principles: a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian renunciation of the right of return and of terrorism, an end to Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Beilin, the main difference between the two documents is that the Ayalon-Nusseibeh blueprint serves as a declaration of principles, whereas the Beilin-Abed Rabbo paper goes into details, trying to continue negotiations that broke off in Taba nearly two years ago. Beilin and Abed Rabbo began working on their agreement shortly after the Taba talks ended.

"A few days after Taba, I told Yossi that had we had a little more time, we could have reached a final and absolute settlement," Abed Rabbo said. "Even today, I believe that never before in the history of the two peoples were they so close to an agreement."

Beilin and Abed Rabbo say they are again close to reaching an agreement — but they no longer have the political influence to carry it out.

Both teams are still working on their papers, and want to publicize them after Israel’s Jan. 28 election. Beilin is convinced that Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna would support his plan if he didn’t feel obligated to take Labor toward the center to attract undecided voters. Both teams have refrained from officially publishing their papers, fearing that publication would cause more harm than benefit.

Though Labor recently chose a Knesset list that is more centrist than Mitzna, there are some indications that the left still maintains strong influence within the party. For example, the party’s election platform for the first time will refer to Jerusalem just as "Israel’s capital, including its Jewish neighborhoods." Gone is the traditional reference to Jerusalem as "whole and united," implying that Labor would be willing to relinquish Arab parts of the city.

Even former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that control over the "holy basin" — the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City — would be negotiated among representatives of the three major religions, a far cry from the official Likud policy that no concessions will be made on Jerusalem.

Similarly, Palestinian moderates have published advertisements in the East Jerusalem media calling on the Palestinians to support the Israeli peace camp, specifically mentioning Mitzna and Ayalon. The ads are signed by The Popular Campaign for Peace and Democracy-Palestine, apparently a front organization for Nusseibeh’s supporters.

The ads openly call for Palestinian intervention in the elections on Mitzna’s behalf. "Mitzna is committed to the solution proposed by Ami Ayalon," one ad read. "Let us help him to implement its clauses." "Supporting the Ayalon document means evacuation of the settlements," another ad read.

The ads quote parts of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document. For the first time, they say, the document includes "recognition of the Palestinian right of return," but specifies that Palestinian refugees will be able to return only to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Previous, unofficial versions of the document had referred only to "recognition of the suffering and plight of the Palestinian refugees." The Beilin-Abed Rabbo draft refers to "a symbolic solution of the refugee problem," without specifically mentioning that the Palestinians give up the "right of return."

In any case, Abed Rabbo said, a worldwide plebiscite among Palestinian refugees will have to be held for them to endorse such a solution. For its part, Israel would give up control of the Temple Mount under the Beilin-Abed Rabbo plan, though it doesn’t say so explicitly.

While such proposals may seem far-fetched given the current level of violence and terrorism, most Israelis and Palestinians believe their leaders one day will return to the bargaining table — and they may just be looking for some fresh ideas to revive the peace process.

U.N., Refugee Camps and Our Money

Why is the United Nations running refugee camps like Jenin, for people who claim to be living in their own land? How could a refugee camp under U.N. auspices become a world center for recruiting and training suicide bombers? And why is the United States essentially bankrolling these camps when wealthy Arab oil sheikdoms barely contribute?

According to U.N. records, the United States finances more than one-quarter of the cost of operating the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In 2000, for example, the United States pledged more than $89.5 million toward the more than $337 million total that UNRWA raised from all nations and sources in the world. By comparison, Saudi Arabia pledged $2.5 million — less than 1 percent of the UNRWA total and a minuscule fraction of the American contribution. Oil-rich Kuwait pledged $2 million. Syria pledged $37,209. Egypt pledged $10,000. Iraq and Libya apparently had difficult years; they pledged nothing, although Iraq sends bounties of $25,000 each to the families of suicide bombers.

The UNRWA is a subsidiary of the United Nations. Its commissioner-general, appointed by the U.N. secretary general, is the only head of a United Nations body authorized to report directly to the General Assembly. The UNRWA was founded by Resolution 302(IV) of Dec. 8, 1949, and to this day remains unique within the world body as a relief agency assigned to serve only one class of people.

All the world’s other refugees are served by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR serves the needs of more than 21.8 million refugees in 120 countries ranging from the Balkans, Colombia, West Africa and Chechnya to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Timor and the Horn of Africa. Palestinian Arabs alone are under the aegis of the UNRWA.

Locally recruited "Palestinian refugees" make up 99 percent of UNRWA’s staff in the 59 refugee camps that UNRWA operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the disputed territories that Israelis call "Judea and Samaria" and that the Arab world calls "the West Bank." The majority of UNRWA camps and nearly 60 percent of their residents are in the three Arab countries, the remainder are in the areas administered by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. According to the UNRWA, it is the main provider of basic social services in all those camps.

The UNRWA’s largest budget item is its school system, which comprises half its budget and two-thirds of its staff. In all, the UNRWA operates 266 schools with 242,000 students in the area administered by the Palestinian Authority. In the aftermath of Israel’s military incursion into the UNRWA refugee camp in Jenin, that agency has been under a microscope, partly because it has schooled four generations of Jenin children. According to the UNRWA, its schools use the same curricula and textbooks as do the host government schools. Palestinian Authority textbooks incorporate maps of the Middle East that omit Israel, and their texts delegitimize Israel, Judaism and Jews.

Under the UNRWA’s auspices, the number of refugees it serves has grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 3.8 million today. Thus, the overwhelming majority of its population are the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who first were placed in UNRWA camps in 1950. Between 1947 and 1950, approximately 750,000 Jewish refugees were driven from Arab countries in the Middle East. There was no United Nations agency to serve their health, educational and social needs, so they were absorbed directly into the Israeli polity, and their offspring bear no indicia of refugee status.

Israel reports that approximately half the suicide bombers who have struck over the past 19 months were residents of the Jenin UNRWA camp or terrorists who were trained there. It also is odd that a "refugee camp" under United Nations auspices has emerged as a terror center where Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Tanzim and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade terrorists run wild, stocking arms, building bomb-making factories and recruiting and training children educated at UNRWA schools to detonate themselves. Perhaps oddest of all is the American role as chief bankroller.

With Washington now scouring its outlays in the face of projected budget deficits, it is remarkable that America continues to pump scores of millions into a U.N. program that has institutionalized dependency among four generations of Arabs — while the oil princes barely contribute. It is remarkable, too, that the refugees and their descendants are still living in squalor a half-century after the helping hand first was extended.

This makes no sense. In a time when U.N. fact-finding commissions are all the rage, here is a subject for congressional fact-finders to investigate: Why are we throwing away all those tax dollars?

Arafat’s New Point Man

It takes a pretty sophisticated politician to stand in front of a roomful of intifada-hardened reporters and announce that he is "politically naive." Especially if you are Sari Nusseibeh, Yasser Arafat’s new point man in Jerusalem, whose family has been moving and shaking in the holy city ever since a seventh-century ancestor entered it as a general in the conquering Arab army of the Caliph Omar in 637.

Naive or not, the 52-year-old, Harvard-trained philosophy professor has made instant waves since Arafat tapped him in October to succeed the late Faisal Husseini as his political commissioner for Jerusalem affairs. Nusseibeh says with rare candor that violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere. Neither side can impose its will on the other. Violence breeds violence. The time has come, he contends, to give reason a chance, to return to negotiation and dialogue.

Unlike other disenchanted Palestinian intellectuals, however, Nusseibeh is challenging Arabs as well as Jews to come to terms with the heavy price they would have to pay for peace. Most radically, he is telling nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees to give up the dream of returning to their old homes in what is now Israel, the hope which has sustained them through half a century of exile, deprivation and illusion. If they want to come back, he is saying, it will have to be to a Palestinian state, established alongside Israel.

Nusseibeh argues that the step-by-step strategy of the 1993 Oslo accords has failed. "We haven’t created more confidence," he says. "We’ve destroyed even the little trust that was created." His alternative is to go directly to the end game, to define the essential interests of each side, then draw a road map for gradual implementation.

"Then," he says, "we would be looking at the issues we’ve been trying to hide under the carpet. Everything should be above the table. People should be made to take decisions."

The three "basic obstacles," as Nusseibeh presents them, are: Jewish settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Israel conquered those territories in 1967; the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war; and Jerusalem, which both nations claim as their capital. These are the rocks on which the Camp David negotiations foundered last year.

The refugee question, he contends, has to be dealt with by the Palestinians themselves. "This is a Palestinian issue," he says. "We have to come to terms with what needs to be done.

"If the idea is to reach a settlement, then the Palestinians have to recognize that this is a deal-breaker if they insist on implementing the right of return in Israeli territory. Israel will not accept 4 million refugees within its borders. This Israeli position has to be taken into account. It is necessary to deal with the refugees within a two-state solution."

Nusseibeh’s quid pro quo is an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. "Palestinians," he maintains, "will not accept a state that is itself another Israel, a state whose resources and borders are controlled by Israel. If the Israeli side over the past three or four years assumed that it was possible to conclude an agreement in which Israel could retain settlements, the current spate of violence has proven that the Palestinian people will not accept such a position. It is very important for Israelis to come to terms with that. The Palestinian demand is for a state in the entirety of territory occupied in 1967."

As for Jerusalem, Nusseibeh’s solution is to divide the city, keeping open an option to reunite it in the future. "East Jerusalem should be returned to the Palestinians. West Jerusalem should remain with the Israelis. West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital."

Within that framework, he insists on absolute Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the Haram al Sharif, though he stops short of denying any historic Jewish connection to the site of King Solomon’s Temple. The nearest he comes to flexibility, however, is to call for mutual respect between religions. "If we make exclusive claims," he says, "we would not be true to our own faith." He doesn’t elaborate.

Nusseibeh may or may not be a naive politician, but he is a beguiling thinker. Our group of foreign correspondents sat for two hours listening to him. No one left. Yet, for all his appeal to reason, there is something unworldly, utopian perhaps, about his ideas. The chances that they would be implemented seem remote, especially so in the climate of mutual hostility and suspicion generated by the violence of the past 14 months. Didn’t the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, go for the "end game" at Camp David? And didn’t Arafat turn him down?

A Palestinian decision to settle the refugees within their own state, rather than in Israel, Nusseibeh says, would have to be submitted to a referendum. All Palestinians, including those festering in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, would have their say. It is hard to believe they would vote "Yes."

On the other side of the equation, even if some future Israeli government agreed to evacuate all the 220,000 West Bank and Gaza settlers in return for a permanent peace, it is hard to see Israeli legislators uprooting nearly as many again in the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem — and staying in office.

Like an Old Testament prophet, Nusseibeh is telling Arabs and Jews what they must do if they want peace. The rest is up to them. He speaks for himself — he won’t be doing the negotiating.

The Battle for Peace

The acid test for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came last week when he made his fateful visit to the White House to discuss Bill Clinton’s framework agreement — a roadmap designed to set the parameters for negotiating the tough issues that separate Israel and the Palestinians. Arafat failed the test.

Clinton’s proposals, which were accepted by Israel, would have handed Arafat control over some 95 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of Gaza, predominantly Arab areas of Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount and most of the Old City) and the Muslim holy sites, and it offered the limited return to Israel of at least some of the Palestinian refugees.

That’s not all: The Palestinians would have been compensated for the missing 5 percent of West Bank territory with an equivalent area inside pre-1967 Israel, presumably in the Negev Desert, contiguous with the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the United States and the 15-member European Union had been privately putting together an enormous international aid package, estimated at more than $30 billion, to help rehabilitate those refugees who would not have qualified to return under the proposed humanitarian and family reunification criteria. Not least, the Clinton proposals would have offered the Palestinians what no previous rulers of the area — Roman, Arab, Turkish or British — ever had permitted: An independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
It was an offer that many in the West believed Arafat could not refuse. To the surprise and chagrin of Western leaders, Arafat did just that. His angry “no” was accompanied by threats of still more violence. Moreover, he was emboldened in his rejection by Arab leaders throughout the Middle East.

The writing on the wall came with the sudden switch in Palestinian public rhetoric from the issue of Jerusalem to that of refugees, which both the Americans and Europeans thought had been settled, give or take a few billion dollars.

After Arafat had been handed what he had demanded in Jerusalem, he declared that no agreement was possible without an explicit declaration by Israel that all the refugees would have “the right of return” to their former homes inside Israel, fixing on the one issue guaranteed to sticking in the craw of all Israelis and explode the negotiations.

For Israelis of all political complexions, there is a fundamental consensus on the issue of the refugees: their “right of return” is simply not on the agenda.

Clinton himself explicitly recognized this reality when he addressed the Israel Policy Forum in New York on Sunday and urged the Palestinians not to hold out “for the impossible more.”

“You cannot expect Israel,” he said, “to acknowledge an unlimited right of return to present-day Israel.”
Arafat could and did. Moreover, he stuck to his demand knowing that if there were a “right of return” for the estimated 4 million Palestinian refugees — mostly the children and grandchildren of the original 650,000 refugees — the Jewish population would very quickly cease to constitute a majority and Israel would, quite simply, cease to exist as a Jewish state. The Israelis have declined the invitation to commit national suicide.

According to some Israeli analysts, Arafat is incapable, psychologically or politically, of bringing himself to declare an end to the conflict with Israel.

The analysts say he cannot make the transition from war to peace, from terrorist to politician; he is unable to establish the industrial infrastructure and the appropriate instruments of government which are essential to the project of nation-building — and which he knows will dilute his personal power, rendering him vulnerable to change.

According to others, he has no intention of allowing himself to be limited by the responsibility that sovereignty and statehood imply. He does not plan, they say, to settle for a rump state, but has ambitions that extend far beyond the West Bank and Gaza and include not only the shaky Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, which already contains a Palestinian majority, but also Israel itself.

As long as he is able to use violence to galvanize international support — for the Jerusalem mosques, for the refugees’ return, for more territory — what incentive is there to risk the wrath of his large rejectionist constituency and consign himself to oblivion by limiting his vision? Judging by his performance during the past seven years, he appears to have little appetite for the unglamorous business of creating the sort of secular, democratic ideal to which he had once earnestly aspired.

Surprisingly, some of the most scathing critiques of Arafat come not from Israelis but from the Arab intelligentsia-in-exile, who make no attempt to hide their contempt for a man whom they consider to be inveterately duplicitous.

As Arafat traveled to Washington to discuss the abortive Clinton proposals, some members of the Arab elite in London were astonished at the continuing optimism of Israelis who apparently saw what they want to see and heard what they wanted to hear.

A Palestinian academic at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities noted that Arafat appeared to be “most at ease operating in circumstances of chaos.”

“When he was in Jordan, he provoked a civil war. And when he was in Lebanon, he provoked a civil war,” said the academic. “In both cases he not only survived but emerged strengthened. Don’t be surprised if that is his strategy now.”

Did the academic believe that Arafat really expects Israel and Jordan to drop into his lap? “Of course, he expects that Jordan will become part of Palestine,” he said matter-of factly. “He probably calculates Israel will take a little longer.”

A senior Syrian journalist took a more simplistic, brutal view of what he ironically mocked as “Israel’s peace partner.”

“How come you Israelis ever believed you could make a deal with Arafat?” he asked with genuine surprise.

“The man is a gangster, plain and simple, and he uses his organization like a mafia. How can you clever Israelis seriously believe that such man would agree to make compromises?”

But the specter of an Israeli-Palestinian deal is more complex when viewed from the perspective of the Arab world, a specter that contains both risks and opportunities.

The opportunities, according to a senior Israeli political source, apply mainly to the smaller, weaker Arab states which believe that contacts with Israel will bring them tangible technological and economic benefits.
The risks, however, are felt mostly by the powerful Arab states, particularly Egypt and Syria, which fear that the absence of the Palestinian issue, which has provided the glue for holding the Arab world together, will deprive them of their power and influence within the region.

“An end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would carry a heavy price tag for them,” said the Israeli source. “The conflict represents the beating heart of pan-Arabism, and an end to the conflict would be the final nail in the coffin of this powerful and emotive ideology.”

While the disappearance of the Palestinian issue would dramatically reduce the influence of Egypt, which would no longer be perceived as the unchallenged regional leader, Syria would likely be deprived of aid from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has lubricated the creaky economy in Damascus as a reward for its “steadfastness” in support of the pan-Arab cause.

Such are the realities which are now compelling a large segment of Israeli society to conclude that peace is not, as they had so fervently believed, at hand. Nor, it seems with hindsight, was it ever more than a mirage in the vast Arabian desert.