The Return of 1948

TEL AVIV – The forthcoming United Nation’s conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of UNRWA (The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) could not come at a better moment. The restitution of lands occupied in 1967 will obviously continue to be indispensable to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is the legacy of the 1948 war that both parties to the conflict have now put at the center of the debate.

Oddly, it was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, by requesting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, reopened the 1948 file. That demand brought the quest for peace back to its fundamentals, where the question of the refugees is bound to play a central role.

Netanyahu’s intention was essentially to force the Palestinians into admitting that the right of return of refugees applies only to the Palestinian state, not Israel. But the true significance of his demand lies in that it’s being pronounced at a time when Prime Minister Salam Fayaad’s policies are posing a genuine challenge to the Palestinian national movement to choose between an ethos of vindication and one of state building.

Under Fayaad, the Palestinian Authority seems to be superseding the Palestinian national movement’s diaspora-based emphasis in favor of state-building within the territorial confines of the occupied territories. It is as if the voice of the diaspora were being silenced in Palestine. Conspicuously, the recently elected PLO Executive Committee – which in the past consisted exclusively of representatives of the Palestinian Diaspora – now has only one member from the diaspora, a delegate from Lebanon.