With the completion of Barack Obama's first Presidential visit to Israel, as expected there was a great deal of symbolism reinforcing the bond between the two allies. Yet still, doves on both sides acknowledge that peace is hardly around the corner.
Understanding the true barriers to a comprehensive agreement is key to knowing where the pressure to compromise will be coming from. Contrary to popular belief, the core of the conflict is not borders, Israeli settlements, or the status of Jerusalem.
An honest look at the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians requires Obama to understand two major things before he attempts to jump-start any peace process. One is that the two state model today is only applicable to Israel and the West Bank; there can be no contiguous Palestine state between the West Bank and Gaza with Hamas in power. This would represent a threat to both Israel and to Palestine.
Second, the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in the Palestinian "Right of Return," the collective belief in a legal and moral right for Palestinian refugees, and more importantly their descendents from around the world, to return to ancestral homes in Israel that were once part of Mandatory Palestine. The "right of return" is central to Palestinian national identity and is a high barrier to any peace agreement.
This is underscored in a recent telling statement made by Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar on the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigade's website. He said that that Israel's attempts to end the UN classification of the Palestinian refugees is doomed to fail because of how Palestinian identity is linked to the Right of Return for eternity. "The Palestinian refugee is a citizen forcibly displaced from his land and his return is one of the constants that cannot be controlled by the occupation; it is sacred like our faith… Our grandfathers were once in their land and their grandchildren will return to it no matter how long it takes."
This is a quasi-religious belief that crosses all sectors of Palestinian society, and which is endlessly reproduced in Palestinian media, education and culture, and which is endorsed by UNRWA, the UN organ charged with maintaining health, welfare and education services for those it has deemed Palestinian refugees.
But Al-Zahar is also misinformed regarding the Israeli position. Recent Israeli governments have been forthright in stating that there is no "right of return" and increasingly they point to it as one of the most formidable obstacles to making peace between the Israeli and Palestinian states, as well as peoples. But there have been no official Israeli efforts to end or even curtail UNRWA. Only recently has former Member of Knesset Einat Wilf called attention to UNRWA's administrative decisions to extend refugee status to additional generations of Palestinians, creating more "refugees" and extending its own mandate. Wilf notes correctly that UNRWA's endorsement of the "right of return" lies at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict and not co-incidentally UNRWA's continued existence. Important legislation to reform UNRWA has also come from U.S. Senator Mark Kirk but has not yet succeeded in passing through the Congress.
But Al-Zahar understands the problem in the most fundamental way, that the "right of return" – and until then, "refugee" status guaranteed and funded by the international community – are the cornerstones of Palestinian national identity. From his perspective, of course, it is therefore necessary to put the onus entirely on Israel for the "Nakba," the "catastrophe" of 1948 and Israel's creation, as opposed to seeing any Palestinian and Arab responsibility or agency in the matter. If this is the core of Palestinian identity, that can be satisfied only by exercising the Palestinian "right of return" and the destruction of Israel, then there is no room for compromise.
To understand the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Obama administration would be wise to listen to Al-Zahar, as well as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas who stated "I have never and will never give up the right of return." Abbas's statement is as important as Al-Zahar's since he was forced by Palestinian and Arab outrage to clarify an earlier comment where he had appeared to waver on the "right of return."
In the meantime, UNRWA will continue to support continuing generations of "refugees," the majority of whom were born outside of Palestine, a large proportion of whom are national citizens of other states. In fact, UNRWA's former general counsel James Lindsay has observed that "In truth, the vast majority of UNRWA's registered refugees have already been "resettled" (or, to use the UN euphemism, "reintegrated")" and that "only thing preventing all of these citizens from ceasing to be "refugees" is UNRWA's singular definition of what constitutes a refugee."
Understanding how a UN agency is an integral ingredient of 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 another key for President Obama to keep in mind as he visits Israel, and perhaps the West Bank. This has been the Arab world's biggest success against Israel, only 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 at those who are truly being served. Until he understands that the "right of return" is the essence of the conflict, and that we need to start changing this core Palestinian belief, President Obama should not expect any change in the near future.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.