Thomas R. Pickering, former number 3 in the State Department and U.S. ambassador to Israel (1985-1988) spoke some interesting truths in a speech last week covered by the Daily Star’s Rami Khouri. Pickering, who was once in the running to become Secretary of State (but lost out to Madeleine Albright), is attempting to inject some hardheaded realism into the discussion of what should be reasonably be expected of Israel for final status talks:
[Pickering] argued that a two-state solution required a return of Palestinian land occupied in 1967, “approaching 100 percent, with negotiated tradeoffs,” giving Palestinians control over their own internal security and foreign guarantees for their external security. Jerusalem’s status would be resolved according to the Ehud Barak-Bill Clinton ideas of 2000 (essentially: what’s Arab is Arab, and what’s Jewish is Jewish).
Pickering’s call for Israel to recognize the right of return of the 1948 Palestinians is noteworthy. No serving or retired American official of such stature and firsthand personal knowledge of the conflict has ever explicitly called for Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ right of return. I pursued the matter privately with Pickering after his public talk, and asked if he was referring strictly to the generation of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948. He replied affirmatively, and explained:
“The right of return is controversial and the Israelis don’t want to actually admit or honor this right, for the simple reason that they see it as a slippery slope. Over a period of time they think that the Palestinian and Arab objective is to flood Israel with returning refugees, and therefore, in a sense, ‘demograph’ it out of existence. The real question is whether a right of return could be recognized within negotiated limits. This would give to the Palestinians the recognition they feel is important for themselves, but at the same time protect Israel against a flood of returnees.”
How would his proposal work in practice? “I would say there are three or four steps,” Pickering explained. “First, recognize the right of return. Second, define it. One way to define it in the narrowest way would be to say that anybody who left in 1948 could return, but not their progeny born after 1948. Another way would be to say anybody who left in 1948 could return, along with some family unifications, up to a limit of, say, 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 or whatever the two sides agree on. Third, the other individuals who were involved over the years in one way or another obviously have to be dealt with in a serious way, including by the international community. There, I suggest those others who live elsewhere – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Brazil, wherever – would have a right within some limits set by the Palestinians themselves to go to the new state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. Obviously [the Palestinian state] could not absorb everybody. So point number four would be an international program, very liberally funded, for relocations, in places like Canada, the United States, Australia – whoever is willing to offer to take individuals who have no place [to go] but want to start a new life somewhere and who need international help to do that.”
Pickering’s call for a virtual “100% return” to ’67 borders seems necessary to me as well. I’d perhaps tinker with the 100% number as Clinton did at Camp David by attempting to incorporate some large West Bank settlement blocs within Israel in return for Israeli territorial offsets in the Negev or elsewhere.
The ambassador’s proposal for a “modified” Right of Return is similar to my understanding of the Geneva Accords on this subject. If hardline pro-Israel forces would stop screaming long enough about this proposal sounding the death knell for the State of Israel as we know it–they’d see that it is a workable compromise which will allow Palestinians to achieve a cherished dream (returning to the land they lost–even in modified form–in 1948), while it would in no way endanger Israel which would be accepting a five to six-figure influx of Palestinian former refugees.
A completely rhetorical question: why is it that State Department officials can only make such public pronouncements after they retire from diplomatic service? If a few of our currently serving diplomats could muster up the same forthrightness we might see some real progress in solving the conflict (not to mention giving Israeli leaders a heart attack due to our unexpected candor).