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January 13, 2005
Living In Denial On The River Jordan

With the election of Mahmoud Abbas, all sides expect the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table with new motivation to reach a deal ending the 37-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The last such serious negotiations occurred in 2000, when a recalcitrant Yasser Arafat refused to back down from any of his demands, touching off a second intifada and forcing Israel to finally get serious about eliminating terrorist leaders.

Now, with a peaceful transition of leadership accomplished by the Palestinian Authority, Abbas can finally become a legitimate -- and hopefully serious -- negotiating partner with Ariel Sharon. However, Abbas fanned the flames of the most radical planks in the Palestinian platform and raised hopes beyond reason that he would deliver Jerusalem and the so-called "right of return" to Israel. The New York Times reports on the effect Abbas' campaign has had on Palestinian refugees in Jordan:

A ragged banner dangling outside the central bus station of this squalid refugee camp outside Amman underscores the trepidation many Palestinians here feel about the landslide election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday.

"The right of return," the banner says, "is sacred."

For over half a century, Palestinians - especially in refugee camps like this one in Jordan, with 180,000 residents - have said the right of return to their former homes in what is today Israel is nonnegotiable. Israel rejects such a huge immigration, saying it would compromise the Jewish character of its nation.

With the election of Mr. Abbas, a moderate who is expected to negotiate aggressively with the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, many here fear the loss of this most cherished demand.

In fact, this fear demonstrates a sense of reality that I frankly thought outside the Palestinian oeuvre. Unfortunately, that sense does not extend to an intelligent analysis of their situation. Israel simply cannot accept any notion of a carte-blanche return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. On practical grounds alone, that migration would produce a disaster. Such a move would flood Israel with over a million refugees, with little means of support and no place to live. Thousands would die within weeks of arrival for lack of resources.

But far more significant to Israel's survival are the political implications of a flood of Palestinians entering their state. That would not be a repatriation; it would be an invasion of a hostile and probably heavily-armed force into the heartland of their nation. Palestinians do not want to live in Israel, they want to destroy Israel. Why would any Israeli government allow such an action? Why would anyone expect them to do so?

Other points certainly do not have the same weight of extinction and will wind up as bargaining points, difficult but probably resolvable, including the status of Jerusalem. However, if Abbas follows the Palestinian mandate of holding this "right" of return sacred, he damns the region to continuous war, and the US should make clear to the Europeans as well as the Palestinians that such a decision will have dire consequences on the nature of our participation in the process.

We have pressured Israel for more than a decade to trade land for peace, but we had better make everyone involved understand that we are not interested in imposing the peace of Munich on the Israelis. Ariel Sharon is not Edvard Benes, and George Bush is not Neville Chamberlain, even if the EU has begun to resemble Edouard Daladier in their foreign policy.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 13, 2005 6:20 AM

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