The Palestinian “right of return” entered the lexicon of American policymakers in December 2006, when the Iraq Study Group Report urged the U.S. government to support Israel-Palestinian negotiations that addresses what it termed a “key final status issue.” That recommendation came as a mild shock, given that the “right of return” to Israel is transparently a code phrase to overwhelm Israel demographically, thereby undoing Zionism and the Jewish state, and so a notion never before a goal of official Washington.
A year later, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino adopted the term, though without much notice. Out of seemingly nowhere, she informed journalists at a press briefing on November 28, 2007 that “The right of return issue is a part of the road map and it's going to be one of the issues that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to talk about during … negotiations.”
Indeed, on schedule, “right of return” emerged as a motif before and during George W. Bush’s recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, when he mentioned it three times publicly:
· January 4: In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Bush announced himself “optimistic that we can have the outlines of a state defined. In other words, negotiations on borders and right of return and these different issues can be settled.”
· January 9: At a joint press conference with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he referred to the core issues of the conflict as “territory and right of return and Jerusalem.”
· January 10: In a parallel joint press conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he stated that the two-state idea “really doesn’t have much bearing until borders are defined, right of return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, … [and] the common security measures will be in place.”
In a different setting, also on January 10, Bush, somewhat elusively, stated his belief that “we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue.” Is the “right of return” to be one of those new international mechanisms?
Comments: (1) Despite the major shift in policy implied by the U.S. government adopting the “right of return,” the media has largely missed the story, as “The Lurker” documents in “Censoring Bush’s call for Palestinian ‘right of return’.” In particular, the Jerusalem Post reported on this reference, then posted a second story denying it.
(2) When the Iraq Study Group Report first appeared, analysts puzzled over the “right of return” mention, as one person close to the process explained: “It’s hard to know whether that language got in there because of carelessness – I know there were many revisions up to the very last minute – or whether it was a deliberate attempt to fuse something to the Bush rhetoric which wasn’t there before.” Retrospectively, it appears that the reference was indeed intentional – and quite successful in its purpose. “The Lurker” concludes, perhaps correctly, that James A. Baker, III, lead author of the Iraq Study Group Report, “has once again become a major factor in setting U.S. Middle East policy.”
(3) This is only one of several problematic statements from the Bush administration, such as the president’s morally equivalent reference to “terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis” or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s calling the Arab-Israeli conflict the central issue of the Middle East and seeing Palestinians as analogous to Southern blacks.
(4) Bush prefaced his January 10 comment by asserting, “I’m the only president that’s really articulated a two-state solution so far,” and he is right. Put differently, he is the only U.S. president to promote a “Palestine” and now to call for a Palestinian “right of return.” More broadly, throughout his presidency, Bush has marched to his own drummer on the Arab-Israeli issue, offering novel and personal solutions to a century-old problem and throwing out the rulebook on Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
(5) One can only guess how often Bush raised the “right of return” in his private conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, and with what intensity and pressure.
(6) Looking ahead, to the last year of the Bush presidency, quoting myself: “should the Israelis resist a joint U.S.-Palestinian position, I see a possible crisis in U.S.-Israel relations of unprecedented proportions.” I am not predicting this will happen but noting that the pieces are all in place for such a development.
(7) Although Bush is “seen by many Israelis as the best friend the Jewish state has had in the White House,” I have long doubted that characterization, and now more so than ever.