By sweeping the refugee question under the rug, the US envoy is implicitly acknowledging the continued subjugation of Palestinians negates any claim to a moral upper hand, writes Michael Young
Kushner is admitting the dispossession of Palestinians is a blemish on Israel’s claim to moral righteousness
Last week Foreign Policy magazine published the internal emails of Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and his envoy for a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. The emails, it said, revealed Mr Kushner “has quietly been trying to do away with the UN relief agency that has provided food and essential services to millions of Palestinian refugees for decades”.
The report should not have come as a surprise. For months, American officials have been saying they would like to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with the US's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt telling European countries that it was not possible for the agency to go on functioning forever. The Trump administration, by pushing for this, is seeking to remove the refugee issue from Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
The role of UNRWA is more than just symbolic; it is also mainly one of definition. According to the UN agency, Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”. However – and this is the key point – UNRWA also considers descendants of these individuals to be refugees as well. For the likes of Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt, such a definition perpetuates the refugee population indefinitely.
By abolishing UNRWA, both men intend for refugees to fall under the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR applies a more restrictive definition of refugees, one derived from the 1951 Refugee Convention and that does not mention descendants. It also ceases to apply to those who have acquired a new nationality, meaning that Palestinians who may have been granted Jordanian citizenship, for instance, could be excluded from the 1951 convention and its benefits.
The hope of Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt is that once the descendants of Palestinian refugees fall under the 1951 convention, they would no longer be able to claim refugee status, effectively removing the issue from the negotiating table. What this shows is that the Trump administration is not interested in resolving the Palestinian problem. Its “deal of the century” is, instead, an effort to liquidate the Palestinian cause and force Palestinians to accept Israeli conditions.
This aim is part of a broader framework that the US envoys appear to want to force on the Palestinians. It would include two other major steps. The first is to enlist the support of major Arab countries for any US peace plan, in such a way that it would neutralise any Palestinian opposition to its provisions. The second, somewhat less clear, is to effectively identify a winner in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, namely Israel, and oblige Palestinians to adapt to this reality.
Yet things might not be so easy. Recently Saudi Arabia's King Salman reportedly reassured his Arab allies that the kingdom would not endorse any US proposal that failed to address the status of Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This came despite misguided optimism among Israelis and their allies in the United States that shared Arab and Israeli concerns about the Iranian regime could push some Arab states to take a more conciliatory position on any peace plan, to Israel’s benefit.
As for declaring Israel the “winner” in the conflict with the Palestinians, such infantile notions might have traction in the halls of the US Congress but are meaningless in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. As the demographics between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River turn in favour of Palestinians in the coming decades, such gimmicks will change nothing. However, they do show that the United States might no longer be an honest broker.
But there is also something very revealing in Mr Kushner’s and Mr Greenblatt’s efforts. In wanting to sweep the refugee question under the rug, both men are implicitly admitting that the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinians constitutes a large blemish on Israel’s claim to moral righteousness. Yet this is not something two ideological ingenues will be able to make disappear so easily.
The refugee experience is without doubt the most powerful aspect of the Palestinian narrative, probably even more so than control over Jerusalem. It is a story of shared loss that has bound Palestinians together for generations and their resentment of this has kept the legitimacy of their cause alive. Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt won’t change this.
Indeed, their hubris is a further antidote to their plan. For what they are asking for, in reality, is that Arab states absorb hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into their own societies just so that Israel can resolve its Palestinian problem. That this comes from the same group of people who want Mexico to pay for a wall imposed by the United States is not surprising. Arrogance, ignorance, inhumanity, is what characterises these people and when their plan comes out – if it comes out – it will be dead on arrival, which is how it should be.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut