I wonder how many of those commentators who diligently monitor the "muzzling" activities of the "Israel Lobby" will note the story of a UN official who made a perfectly reasonable observation at a recent conference, and now has everyone from Hamas to the government of Jordan demanding his head on a plate.
The official in question was Andrew Whitley, the New York Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA,) the UN body charged with providing aid and services to Palestinian refugees. When UNRWA began its operations in 1949, there were approximately 700,000 refugees; now there are close to 5 million, by dint of the fact that, in marked contrast to other refugee populations, Palestinians registered with UNRWA can pass down refugee status to subsequent generations. It's also a pertinent fact that explains why Whitley said what he did.
"We recognize, as I think most do, although it's not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent," Whitley told an audience at the National Council for US-Arab Relations conference. "It's not a politically palatable issue, it's not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it's a known contour to the issue." Instead of entertaining that "cruel illusion," he continued, Palestinians should start considering "their own role in the societies where they are, rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless."
For simply articulating a truth known by very many, not the least the Palestinian leadership, for decades, Whitley was chastised by the Jordanians, while Hamas angrily demanded his dismissal: one more example of how speaking your mind can land you in scalding water with those who regard freedom of speech as contingent on what you say.
Still, it's hard to fault Whitley's logic. Of the 50 million people who lost their homes because of war and conflict in the twentieth century, practically none of the original displaced returned to their homes, never mind their descendants. The historical record shows that refugees - like those 17,000 displaced Jews administered to by UNRWA back in 1950 - are invariably absorbed by host countries.
What's different in the Palestinian case is that the refugee question, and its associated "right of return," has been deliberately positioned by the Arab side as the single biggest obstacle to a final settlement of the conflict with Israel. Accepting that the refugees will not go home, that they will live free of the apartheid conditions imposed on them in states like Lebanon and Syria, and that they might even receive some financial compensation on top, is the height of political incorrectness in the Middle East. It means accepting not only that Israel has the right to exist, but also the right to define itself as the democratic state of the Jewish people.
More than settlements, or Avigdor Lieberman, or any other variable you might care to mention, it is this refusal to break with the narrative of Zionism's original sin which has derailed the peace talks for nearly two decades. As I was researching a new short film on the peace process (embedded below too,) I was struck by how the offers made by Benjamin Netanyahu's predecessors would have resulted in a contiguous, viable Palestinian state in nearly 100 per cent of the West Bank, had they been accepted.
They were rejected because resistance to the notion of two states side by side - which, let us remind ourselves, is where President Obama wants the parties to be one year from now - runs counter to the main currents of Palestinian nationalism.
The persistence of refugee status for millions of Palestinians has been the physical bedrock of rejectionism, both expressly, as in the infamous "three noes" of the Khartoum conference of 1967, and by implication, as demonstrated by the recent Palestinian decision to withdraw from direct talks. Could Andrew Whitley's carefully worded remarks mark the beginning of a seismic shift on the Arab side, given that he has arrived at these conclusions as a friend of the Palestinians? I don't want to predict. All I will say is this: those who call themselves peace advocates could prove themselves by encouraging the liberation of the Palestinians from what, to the western flotillistas and their ilk, seems like a noble dream, but is, for the people living the reality, a quixotic struggle with no end.