By Daniel Pipes
The Palestinian "right of return" entered the lexicon of
American policymakers in December 2006, when the Iraq Study Group
Report urged the U.S. government to support Israel-Palestinian
negotiations that addresses what it termed a "key final status
issue." That recommendation came as a mild shock, given that the
"right of return" to Israel is transparently a code phrase to
overwhelm Israel demographically, thereby undoing Zionism and the
Jewish state, and so never before a goal of official Washington.
A year later, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino
adopted the term, though without much notice. Out of seemingly
nowhere, she informed journalists at a press briefing on November
28, 2007 that "The right of return issue is a part of the road
map and it's going to be one of the issues that the Israelis and
the Palestinians have to talk about during … negotiations."
Indeed, on schedule, "right of return" emerged as a motif
before and during George W. Bush's recent trip to Israel and the
Palestinian Authority, when he mentioned it three times publicly:
• January 4: In an interview with Israel's Channel 2, Bush
announced himself "optimistic that we can have the outlines of a
state defined. In other words, negotiations on borders and right
of return and these different issues can be settled."
•January 9: At a joint press conference with Israel's Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert, he referred to the core issues of the
conflict as "territory and right of return and Jerusalem."
• January 10: In a parallel joint press conference with Palestinian
Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he stated that the two-state idea
"really doesn't have much bearing until borders are defined,
right of return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, … [and]
the common security measures will be in place."
In a different setting, also on January 10, Bush, somewhat
elusively, stated his belief that "we need to look to the
establishment of a Palestinian state and new international
mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee
issue." Is the "right of return" to be one of those new
(1) Despite the major shift in policy implied by the U.S. government
adopting the "right of return," the media has largely missed the
story, as "The Lurker" documents in "Censoring Bush's call for
Palestinian ‘right of return'." In particular, the Jerusalem Post
reported on this reference, then posted a second story denying it.
(2) When the Iraq Study Group Report first appeared, analysts
puzzled over the "right of return" mention, as one person close
to the process explained: "It's hard to know whether that
language got in there because of carelessness – I know there were
many revisions up to the very last minute – or whether it was a
deliberate attempt to fuse something to the Bush rhetoric which
wasn't there before." Retrospectively, it appears that the
reference was indeed intentional – and quite successful in its
purpose. "The Lurker" concludes, perhaps correctly, that James
A. Baker, III, lead author of the Iraq Study Group Report, "has
once again become a major factor in setting U.S. Middle East
(3) This is only one of several problematic statements from the
Bush administration, such as the president's morally equivalent
reference to "terrorism and incitement, whether committed by
Palestinians or Israelis" or Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice's calling the Arab-Israeli conflict the central issue of
the Middle East and seeing Palestinians as analogous to Southern
(4) Bush prefaced his January 10 comment by asserting, "I'm the
only president that's really articulated a two-state solution so
far," and he is right. Put differently, he is the only U.S.
president to promote a "Palestine" and now to call for a
Palestinian "right of return." More broadly, throughout his
presidency, Bush has marched to his own drummer on the
Arab-Israeli issue, offering novel and personal solutions to a
century-old problem and throwing out the rulebook on Arab-Israeli
(5) One can only guess how often Bush raised the "right of
return" in his private conversations with Israelis and
Palestinians, and with what intensity and pressure.
(6) Looking ahead, to the last year of the Bush presidency,
quoting myself: "should the Israelis resist a joint
U.S.-Palestinian position, I see a possible crisis in U.S.-Israel
relations of unprecedented proportions." I am not predicting
this will happen but noting that the pieces are all in place for
such a development.
(7) Although Bush is "seen by many Israelis as the best friend
the Jewish state has had in the White House," I have long
doubted that characterization, and now more so than ever.
Jan 14, 2008
By Daniel Pipes