In March 2014, as the deadline approached for a framework toward a Mideast peace brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas uttered an inflammatory comment to Fatah activists, saying, “We shall never agree to recognize the Jewish state.” Abbas addressed his “bottom line” in resolving the Palestinian refugee issue, which included giving any Palestinian who so chooses the right to “return to the State of Israel.”
The working assumption of successive U.S. administrations was summarized by President George W. Bush in 2004. “It seems clear,” he wrote to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “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.”
Insistence that displaced Palestinians be relocated not into Palestine but into pre-1967 Israel would mean the “two-state solution” would entail two Arab states. This would be a deal breaker.
In willful violation of the U.S. position, on the eve of final commitments to Kerry, Abbas told his fervent followers that the “Right of Return is a personal right.” He insisted Palestinians living outside of Israel reserve the choice to remain where they are and receive compensation, return to the newly formed Palestinian state (and receive compensation), or return to the State of Israel (and, yes, receive compensation).
“All the refugees, who number five million today, along with their offspring, are considered 1948 refugees,” Abbas said. “There are no refugees who came from Nablus or Ramallah. They are all from Tiberias, Safed, Acre, Nazareth, Jaffa, Be’er Sheva, and so on.”
The reaction of the Obama administration was muted. It was assumed that President Abbas was “campaigning,” e.g., seeking support from followers by articulating a maximalist view. When asked in follow-up interviews, Abbas back-tracked. His words were quickly “forgotten” and forgiven by the U.S. Department of State. This forgiving approach to diplomacy occurred in similar fashion this week amid Secretary Kerry’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. Concurrent calls by Iran’s leader for “Death to America” are forgiven. It is assumed that Iran’s leader is speaking in rhetorical language, not necessarily reflecting a reluctance to compromise.
Alarmingly, diplomatic willingness to forgive and forget statements uttered in moments of heightened rhetoric is not being extended to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is an unfair double standard. In the closing days of the Israeli election campaign, Netanyahu declared that there would not be a Palestinian state established on his watch, and warned supporters that Israeli-Arab citizens were voting “in droves.” Following his apparent reelection, Netanyahu has reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution, a Jewish state living side-by-side with a demilitarized Palestinian state. “I don’t want a one-state solution,” he told MSNBC the day after the election. “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change.”
Yet the U.S. administration is unwilling to either “forget” or “forgive.” Twenty years of Israeli government support for a negotiated path to two states for two peoples are jettisoned because of one rhetorical moment of denial.
Israel is America’s most loyal ally in the Middle East. Being unforgiving is unwarranted and unwise. We implore the Obama and Netanyahu administrations to commence the repairing of their breach. We must restore the historic bond between the United States and the Jewish state.