What The Palestinians Want

Not to be missed: Yesterday's little column in Haaretz by Palestinian Authority leader and sometime negotiator Nabil Sha'ath. He is not the most popular of leaders in the West Bank; he's grown curiously rich, and was never a man of the people. Still, he's a straight talking man, who clearly represents mainstream thinking in the Fatah leadership. And for all the talk about the difficulties of negotiation, or the PA turning down various Israeli offers, you read Sha'ath's very blunt statement of the the PA's opening (and, over the years, consistent) position and have to wonder exactly what requires such hard bargaining--if, that is, the basis of the negotiation is a framework agreement that can be made fair to both sides.

The key paragraph in Sha'ath's column is the one where he speaks of the Palestinian "right of return." All other issues are more clearly understood. The current Israeli government insists that the PA should recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," thus precluding some sly Palestinian intention to swamp Israel with returning refugees. Sha'ath states that recognition of Israel should not mean undermining "the rights of Palestinian refugees and the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel." Is this really code for the destruction of Israel?

No. Sha'ath, like most Israeli liberals, believes that the reality of Israel, a Hebrew-speaking state whose large majority is either ethnically Jewish, or practices Judaism, means Arab citizens will naturally acculturate to a patently Jewish state. But Palestinian leaders need not endorse residual deficiencies in Israeli democracy, that is, accept on behalf of the Arab minority the perverse way the current Israeli government defines "Jewish state." (If there is a sincere psychological impasse here, the US might secure an early agreement that both Palestine and Israel should be bound by "democratic standards of equality," and that each state respects the "cultural distinction" of the other.)

More important, though, a solution to the refugees' right of return is pretty much worked out, and Sha'ath was largely responsible for it. I interviewed Sha'ath for a Harper's piece several years ago. His position then, as now, is that this right be realized through a number of "modalities" he negotiated at Taba on 2001, and which were reaffirmed in the Geneva Initiative:

There would be financial compensation for lost property. There would be paid relocation to the Palestinian state. There would be contributions by donor countries, and even by Israel, to that state. (One economist present cheerfully put the amount of reparations at $137 billion.) There would even be a program of limited family reunification in Israel, up to a number “acceptable to the Israeli government,” say 10,000 a year over five years. Nobody could say justice of a kind was not being exacted.

The point is, the biggest problem of the negotiation is not what Palestinians want, or even the Palestinians Israelis fear. It is the Jews Israelis fear. Abbas sees delivering a deal for a state as his legacy--anyway, it's the only reason for his clinging to power. But the Netanyahu government, even if it can be drawn to the logic of Palestinian state, is trying not to confront its own great challenge, a mobilized settler (and settler-sympathizer) population, in and around Jerusalem, in and around the current government, that will resist any such state with unknowable force.

Tom Friedman is right: there will be no progress toward a deal if Netanyahu does not decide, or is not induced to decide by the US, that he must form a broader coalition and confront his own rejectionists--who are only getting stronger with each passing year.