- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

JERUSALEM | U.S.-Israel tension over President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Israel’s pre-1967 borders is obscuring a flip side of the Middle East coin: The past days’ speeches by the U.S. president contained difficult challenges for the Palestinians as well.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, Mr. Obama reiterated his request that the Palestinians drop their plans to appeal for recognition at the United Nations this fall, and - as he did in another Mideast speech Thursday - raised tough questions about an emerging Palestinian unity government that is to include the Hamas militant group.

Most difficult for Palestinians is Mr. Obama’s call to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, essentially requiring the Palestinians to accept that most refugees will be denied the “right of return” to what is now Israel.

Perhaps for this reason, the Palestinians have remained largely quiet about the substance of Mr. Obama’s speeches, seemingly content to watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clash with the U.S. administration over Israel’s future borders.


“It’s really premature to jump into any of these details,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, when asked by the Associated Press about the demands Mr. Obama made of the Palestinians.

The fate of Palestinian refugees is one of the most emotional and explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled during the war at the time of Israel’s creation in 1948. Today, the surviving refugees, with their descendants, number several million people.

The Palestinians claim they have the right to return to their families’ lost properties. Israel rejects the principle, saying it would mean the end of the country as a Jewish democracy. Israeli leaders say the refugees should be entitled to compensation and resettled in a future Palestine to be established next to Israel, or absorbed where they now live.

The issue is so central to Palestinian policy and society that no Palestinian leader can be seen as abandoning the rights of the refugees, particularly at a time when peace efforts are at a standstill and so many other difficult issues, such as borders and the final status of Jerusalem, remain unresolved.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, said recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would sell out not only the refugees, but potentially open the door to Israel expelling its roughly 1.5 million Arab citizens as well. That idea has never been seriously raised in Israel.

He said the Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist, without any reference to national character, should be sufficient. “We recognize Israel as a state,” he said. “It’s a recognition of a state to a state.”

In his two recent speeches, Mr. Obama took aim at two other central planks of Palestinian policy: plans to ask the U.N. in September to recognize an independent Palestine, with or without a peace agreement; and a unity deal struck between President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Iranian-backed Hamas militants.

In Thursday’s speech, Mr. Obama warned that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.”

And referring to Hamas in Sunday’s address to AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israel lobby, Mr. Obama stated: “No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.”