Open Zion

05.24.12

Legislating the Refugee Problem

You have to laugh, or it would make you cry. That is, if you are someone who genuinely cares about Israel and believes that the two-state solution is the only thing that can save Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state, and that can end the occupation and permit the Palestinians to live, finally, as a free people with dignity and self-determination.

I’m talking about Congress. Yes, I know that Congress is always doing things that are less than supportive of Israeli-Palestinian peace (I actually chronicle these things weekly, in excruciating detail). But members of Congress, especially this Congress, are crossing lines that haven’t been crossed before.

A shining example is Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), a Tea Party member who back in September 2011 introduced legislation supporting Israeli annexation “of Judea and Samaria”—aka, the West Bank. The bill was presented as a companion version of a Knesset bill introduced by Likud MK and settler champion Danny Danon (a similar bill was struck down last week by Netanyahu—apparently he understands how damaged such an action would be for Israel).  With 44 members of Congress now co-sponsoring his annexation bill, it is clear Walsh isn’t alone.  He and his fellow-travelers are openly stating that they think they have a right to unilaterally determine the fate of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—consistent with their own messianic vision of the Middle East—through U.S. American law, rather than leaving it to be determined in negotiations, as Israel has committed to repeatedly in the past.

More recently, Walsh published his op-ed entitled “Myth of the Two-State Solution.”  In his own words Walsh articulates his support for a one-state solution—a state of Israel from the river to the sea.

Another example is Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL).  For years, during his tenure in the House of Representatives, Kirk made going after UNRWA—the UN agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees—a pet project.  His efforts have focused on demanding audits and imposing ever-increasing demands for UNRWA accountability as a condition for U.S. funding.  In the past, however, his efforts were framed in terms of concern for U.S. funding.

Now in the Senate, Kirk has apparently become more forthright and more ambitious on the issue.  This time around, it appears he is framing his effort in more honest terms—his intent to tackle “one of the toughest challenges of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without the bedlam that typically accompanies bilateral negotiations.”  Meaning that Kirk wants to take the refugee issue—an issue that Israel and the Palestinians have previously agreed would be resolved only in permanent status negotiations—and use U.S. law to “resolve” it (or mostly resolve it) unilaterally and outside of negotiations (apparently by re-defining most Palestinian refugees out of existence). And all apparently with the approval (it’s not clear if that approval is implicit or explicit) of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Of course, it won’t work, even if this somehow makes it into law. Palestinians who consider themselves refugees don’t do so simply because UNRWA, or anyone else, gives them permission to do so (for UNRWA’s definition of what is a Palestinian refugee, see here). They do so because this is their personal experience and their personal narrative.  Forcing the UN to re-define millions of them to no longer officially qualify as refugees won’t change that self-definition, and it won't make the issue easier to solve in the future.  In truth it will just make it harder, since the new, Kirk-approved terms of reference will be totally disconnected from the actual issues at the heart of the conflict. 

The response to the efforts of Walsh and Kirk, and other Congressional efforts and statements likes these—efforts that among other things conflict the Bush Administration-backed Roadmap and with the letter and the spirit of the Quartet Principles—has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, either a collective yawn or a warm welcome.  This is true whether we are talking about Congress, Jewish community organizations (other than Americans for Peace Now and J Street), or the pundits.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, given the readiness of people in all these quarters to excoriate any Palestinian or pro-Palestinian voice that sings even one line from anything other than the pro-two-state solution sheet music. But that it isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that these members of Congress are presenting their efforts as “pro-Israel.”

Walsh is so “pro-Israel” that he wants to help Israel become an officially apartheid state, in which Arab “citizens” enjoy limited rights under Jewish rule. Kirk is so “pro-Israel” that he wants to pointlessly and self-defeatingly kick the Palestinian people in the most sensitive part of their collective emotional anatomy.

Both of these efforts are guaranteed to further erode the credibility of the U.S. as any sort of honest broker in the Middle East—something that Walsh and Kirk would no doubt welcome, since to people like them, “honest broker” is code for “not sufficiently supportive of far right-wing positions on Israel). They are guaranteed to magnify Palestinian resentments and push Palestinians—not just extremists—further into their own zero-sum corner. All of this comes, of course, at the expense of what Israel needs most today—an end to the occupation and a two-state solution that can allow Israel the chance to survive as a democracy and a Jewish state.

CORRECTION: Due to an editorial mistake, the last three paragraphs of this article were not displayed for all readers. We deeply regret the error; the article is now complete.