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Saeb Erekat Shows His Cards: The Palestinians Will Demand the Return of Refugees

Saeb Erekat is normally a very careful Palestinian spokesman. For years, he regularly appeared on global television networks like CNN, using argumentation crafted to win the sympathy of American viewers.  In addition, he also had excellent contacts in the Israeli media and easily could get himself quoted by any political reporter of the major Hebrew newspapers. He even wrote opinions columns for Y-Net. He always understood what language would work with Israeli society and what is completely unacceptable to the Israeli consensus.

Yet this week, Erekat decided to write an article in the British daily newspaper, The Guardian,  about the Palestinian position on the return of refugees to Israel.  He first tells his British readers that Israel created the refugee issue. Thus he writes: "The fact that Israel bears responsibility for the creation of the refugees is beyond argument." In the narrative that he tells, there is no invasion of six Arab armies into the State of Israel, the moment it was born in 1948. And of course there is no mass eviction of more than 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Erekat then misrepresents UN General Assembly Resolution 194, saying it is the basis for the Palestinians demanding what they call "the right of return." He thus writes: "the UN passed general assembly resolution 194, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and to be awarded compensation."

How many refugees is Erekat talking about? He does not fudge the answer, asserting: "Today, Palestinian refugees constitute more than 7 million people worldwide." His position is a deal breaker. If Erekat is serious then he just blew up the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian side with his article.

In the past, Israeli negotiators were told by their Palestinian counterparts that most refugees would not want to come to Israel, but would rather stay in the countries where they are presently located. Erekat does not make that point in his article. He knows that the Arab Peace Initiative--incorrectly called "the Saudi Plan"--specifically prohibits the repatriation (tawtin--in Arabic) of the Palestinian refugees in countries like Lebanon and Syria, where many are situated today.

What emerges from Erekat's article is that the Palestinians are not giving any indication whatsoever that they are about to concede "the right of return." One might expect a sentence like--"of course we have to be realistic." But no such sentence appears. One reason for this hard line position was just revealed in an analysis by Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah Halevy who discovered that Erekat delivered two speeches in Arabic at Fatah conventions in Hebron and Jericho during 2009 in which he said "the right of return" is the individual right of each refugee and cannot be conceded by anyone in negotiations. Any deal that does not respect these rights, Erekat concludes, will fail.

Why did Erekat spell out the Palestinian position on refugees in such detail? There are those who believe that he sees himself as a successor to Abu Mazen, so by taking a hard line he is positioning himself with the Palestinian public. But then why would he write for a British audience in the Guardian? A better explanation is that Erekat knows that the moment of truth is coming for Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps he thinks that either a US or an international proposal will soon be put in the table. He expects that the Palestinians will be asked to give up the "right of return." By clarifying their position, he hopes that any international proposals in the future will take into account that the Palestinians cannot concede the refugee issue.

If the moment of clarity has come, then what about Israel? There are two guidelines Israel will have to follow. First, on the declarative level, it too will have to say more about its positions, without giving away all of its cards. Silence at this point will signal acquiescence to ideas that are circulating today in the capitals of the West about the 1967 lines that might appear in someone's peace plan. Now that moment of truth is upon us, it is time for Israel to lay down its red lines and speak up about defensible borders and a united Jerusalem.

Second, it must probe the Palestinian position on refugees immediately. However, the Obama administration would like to hear from Israel details about the issue of territory. It makes more sense for Prime Minister Netanyahu to insist that the US determine the real Palestinian position on refugees before he goes any further and takes out maps showing in detail what borders he is willing to accept. Why should Israel be blamed for not making enough concessions on territory if Erekat is already torpedoing an agreement because of his uncompromising stand on refugees?

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