by Nicole Brackman and Asaf Romirowsky, Philadelphia Daily News
About a week ago, the freeze on construction in Israeli towns in the West Bank expired. The hiatus had been reluctantly enacted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the year under pressure from President Obama.
Obama has been trying to persuade Netanyahu to renew the moratorium in the “settlement bloc” in an effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, since the Palestinians consider building in the settlements a deal-breaker, halting negotiations before they can even begin. Israelis, for their part, see the issue as part and parcel of ongoing talks and reject any Palestinian preconditions on the negotiations.
In a cycle that seems to be repeated as elections come and go, the Obama administration is pressing Netanyahu to buck his own electoral mandate (and his supporting coalition in the Israeli Knesset) and accede to the Palestinian demands. Yet you can reasonably ask what purpose the previous moratorium served, as no progress in the negotiations has been forthcoming during it.
Construction in Israeli towns on the West Bank is a straw man, as it deflects attention from the issues that are truly obstructing a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
There is little debate over the fact that – should a peace agreement be completed – there will be a redistribution of property in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinians.
There remains mostly dickering over whether that redistribution will take the shape of a total phased Israeli withdrawal, or (more likely) an exchange of land annexing the more populous Israeli towns to Israel for other land in the Jordan Valley or Negev desert.
So if settlement construction is a red herring, what’s the real problem?
While the status of Jerusalem is a matter of national and religious pride, the question of the Palestinian refugees is the existential concern for both sides.
To say that the Palestinian power structure has predicated its entire claim to legitimacy with the Palestinian population on the full return of refugees to Israel would be a gross understatement. Two generations of the literal institutionalization and professionalization of refugees through bureaucracies like the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have raised those expectations among Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world and virtually guaranteed the rejection of any agreement that does not provide for full “return.”
For the Israelis, such a provision is clearly an existential threat (and fully designed that way) that cannot be accepted. They prefer to focus on restitution, with limited (and phased) return to whatever territories will comprise the Palestinian state.
UNRWA is the primary bureaucratic culprit responsible for prolonging and exacerbating the Palestinian refugee issue.
The Canadian government has announced that Canada would defund UNRWA following a report commissioned by the European Parliament documenting that Hamas terrorists have been chosen by the UNRWA labor union to actually administer its facilities, thereby becoming the first Western nation to begin withdrawing support for the agency. The U.S. would do well to follow that example and use our tax dollars to promote independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth.
If the current Palestinian leadership is truly concerned about changing the status of Palestinian society, it should work to remove all the obstacles that are preventing change and democratization. UNRWA – while on its face a progressive nongovernmental organization that provides needed services – is in fact itself obstructing progress in the peace negotiations. UNRWA benefits as long as the refugee crisis can’t be solved.
UNRWA has managed to prevent its demise by ensuring that the refugees stay artificially separated from the rest of the Palestinian population.
It’s worth noting that every Palestinian refugee camp is currently within the jurisdiction of Arab governments – and the majority are in the land controlled by Palestinian Authority itself. This is a miscarriage of government and leadership – UNRWA has been a significant player in protracting the refugee status of thousands of Palestinians.
Taking UNRWA out of the equation now would be a step in the right direction.
Nicole Brackman writes extensively on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics. Asaf Romirowsky is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.