As President Barack Obama prepares for his first trip to Israel as president, no one doubts we will see a strong push to get both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. Yet, doves on both sides acknowledge it would take nothing short of a miracle to get down to the business of building a real peace.
Understanding the true barriers are key to predicting where the pressure to compromise will be coming from. Counter to popular belief, despite the significant demands put on Jerusalem by Washington over the past five years which resulted in a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, the core of the conflict is neither the settlements nor Jerusalem.
A closer look at the situation on the ground will allow Obama to understand two major realities before he attempts to jump-start any peace process. The first is that the two-state model today is only applicable to Israel and the West Bank; there can be no contiguous Palestine State in West Bank and Gaza with Hamas in power in the latter territory. Second, the crux of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is rooted in the Palestinian "Right of Return," the collective belief in a right of return to homes in Israel that were once part of mandatory "Palestine" and which is central to Palestinian national identity.
Given this, a more productive route for the Obama administration would be to tackle the growing number of "Palestinian refugees" and the never-ending expansion of UNRWA (the UN body devoted to maintenance of these individuals).
The Arab-Palestinian narrative sees a direct correlation between Palestinian identity and refugee status that fuels the notion of statelessness and "otherness" within the refugee populations worldwide.
All of this has resulted in everlasting blame toward Israel and the West. In fact, as correctly stated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) former general counsel James Lindsay, "The vast majority of UNRWA's registered refugees have already been 'resettled'" (or, to use the UN euphemism, "reintegrated") and that "only thing preventing citizens from ceasing to be 'refugees' is UNRWA's singular definition of what constitutes a refugee."
The image the global community has when it hears words such as "refugees" and "refugee camps" is one of fleeing individuals living in tents in dire settings. However, a closer look at Palestinian refugee camps reveals that they are actually adjacent to neighborhoods in Palestinian cities, and have water, electricity and satellite TV.
These claims made by UNRWA and Palestinians have engendered sympathy that has helped UNRWA generate billions of dollars of financial support. All rooted in the belief that these funds would eliminate starvation and help Palestinian refugees to assimilate.
The world has been led to believe that the greatest crime ever committed was against the Arabs of Palestine and that their only savior is UNRWA, which not only takes care of the refugees but guarantees them and their descendants refugee status for life through a self-sustained bureaucracy. In 2007, shortly after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Ahmed Jammal, a father of five from Gaza, exclaimed inside an aid center in Gaza City that "we now have only God and then UNRWA."
The relationship between UNRWA and the Palestinians has become one of mutual dependence, fostered by UNRWA being the only provider of social services. This helps force the Palestinians to stay in the periphery of the world while UNRWA becomes the center which controls the money.
If the current US administration cares about fostering peace and moving forward a two-state solution it needs to understand that UNRWA prevents any sort of normalization from happening.
Understanding how a UN agency is an integral ingredient in a long-term Arab strategy to perpetuate the misery of the Palestinians and to keep this humanitarian burden at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict is key. This has been the Arab world's biggest success against Israel, and has come at the expense of the Palestinians. If Obama truly wants to move the peace process forward it would behoove him to look at what our taxpayer dollars are buying in UNRWA and to take a careful look at those who are truly being served.