In President Barack Obama's speech of May 19, he credits the recent "Arab Spring" with opening the first windows onto the prospect of burgeoning democracy across the Arab world. Crediting technology and the availability of information via the Internet with revealing the possibility of freedom to the oppressed masses under the thumbs of dictators, the president described his vision of a grass-roots inspired movement to grace Arab states with democratic governments and its people with human rights and the dignity of freedom.
However, the president – and the Department of State – is still convinced that the "root cause" of problems in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reality on the ground paints quite a different picture. While Obama began by examining the rising unrest across the Arab world and its potential consequences both for those countries and the world at large, in the end the focus reverted by force of habit to the perennial "black sheep" of the Middle East – Israel and the Palestinian conflict. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not in fact responsible for all the region's ills, the president's (and the State Department) reflex is to conflate the "lack of progress" in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations to an absurd magnitude.
Historically, US presidents at the behest of the Department of State, have remained fixated on what Israel should "do" to "advance the cause of peace" at the expense of discerning the trends of disquiet rolling through the Middle East in ways which have profoundly threatened regional (and global) stability. In that regard, Obama is no different. That said, Obama did state that resolution between Israelis and Palestinians will come about by basing the disposition of territory on the 1948 Armistice lines. Though that expectation is a foregone conclusion in the eyes of all but Israel (which - somewhat naively - insists that there be no preconditions to negotiations), President Obama laid down the gauntlet to Israel.
In a departure for American foreign policy, Obama did not preface his statement by saying that the 1967 boundaries are a "Palestinian goal" but rather articulated it as a specifically American initiative. This contravenes stated US policy to protect Israel's security; the 1948 Armistice lines, which were hardly defensible in 1967, are only more precarious now.
There are real (and realistic) ways for the President to assert American interests in the "peace process" and take concrete steps not only toward establishing a real premise for a workable negotiation between the Palestinians and Israelis – but also toward improving and gaining traction in bilateral relationships with Arab countries. Palestinian "refugeeness" has become a central symbol of their struggle and the raison d'être of their cause; Palestinian proponents argue that as long as they are refugees, no peace with Israel can ever come about.
The End of UNRWA?
This issue has been poorly understood and handled by America since the 1950s. It has been used – first by the Arab League, then by the Palestinians themselves – as a diversion; as a "ticking bomb;" and as an ideological, no-holds-barred, Armageddon-esque threat to topple negotiations and destroy Israel from within and without. The US helps perpetuate the quagmire through continued financial support of UNRWA (the UN body solely devoted to aiding Palestinian refugees) notwithstanding clear evidence that UNRWA has been co-opted by terrorist elements and despite directives from the US Congress to demand by UNRWA transparency and accountability.
Defusing this threat is not only possible, but relatively simple (although not easy). The United States has disparate interests in, relationships with, and goals for Arab states which have significant Palestinian refugee populations (Palestinian Authority; Gaza; Jordan; Syria; Lebanon). Conversely each of those states (or entities) have something they want or need from the U.S. Treating the Palestinian refugee issue as a matter for bilateral negotiations between America and each state significantly mutes the ideological component, and defuses its potential use as a "weapon" in negotiations.
This strategy re-focuses the context of the refugee issue - making it a matter for logistical and operational-oriented solutions. It obliges the Arab states to confront their own responsibility for the treatment of the Palestinians within their borders as chattel (not to mention their outright persecution in Syria and Lebanon) and highlights the incongruous irony that Palestinians are still living in refugee "camps" while under the autonomous jurisdiction of their own (ostensibly democratically elected) governments in the Palestinian Authority areas and Gaza.
Such a refocusing is also a boon for US policy interests, both in the short and long term. In re-evaluating a long-held but faulty axiom of 20th century American foreign policy, the Obama administration can signal its intent to establish "cooperative dominance" that is oriented toward productive results rather than ideological posturing for the new, 21st century realities in the Middle East. President Obama can establish a pattern of pragmatic diplomacy that alerts both the new and old Arab regimes that the United States is interested not in ceaseless dogmatic whining but in brass-tacks negotiating intended to produce real payoffs.
Finally, employing such approach would go a long way toward compelling the Arabs and Palestinians to stop rewriting history to accommodate the myth that the West (and specifically Israel) created the refugee problem. Palestinian recidivism and a selective historical memory prevent the acknowledgement that it was the Arab rejection of UN Resolution 181 and the Partition Plan that created the Palestinian refugee problem. Ending the refugee problem means (among other things) dismantling UNRWA and other enabling NGOs and requiring the Palestinians and Arab states to step up and take responsibility for both past actions and the future disposition of those who would be citizens.
As Israel absorbed approximately a million Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim nations in the wake of independence in 1948 alone, it is time for the Palestinians to be freed of refugee "servitude" by their leaders. Whatever the timetable for an independent Palestinian state – and it is coming, as part of a viable two-state solution – it is long past due that Palestinian and Arab leaders stop using their people as negotiating chips and start recognizing them as citizens with full rights where they live today.
Nicole Brackman, Ph.D. is a former Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.