The 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” in which the character played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again, is an apt description of official Palestinian attitudes toward Israel and the peace process.
The repeated Palestinian rejection of Israeli overtures raises the stakes and draws ever more attention to seducing the Palestinians to participate in talks. The “peace process” movie plays like a repeating loop, with new scenes punctuated by years and shifts in the political winds but without progress. The fatigue associated with this demand for peace circumvents any historical knowledge of the Middle East.
Moreover, with the ongoing suffering in Syria, one has to wonder where the need for attention is greater; and why the constant focus is solely on the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, ignoring the real tragedies in the region.
As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for yet another round of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, demands that Israel submit to various concessions just to bring the Palestinians to the table are again emerging. Reports from February reveal a new (old) request that puts the onus on Israel to "prove" seriousness of intent: “The Obama administration has asked Israel to impose an unofficial settlement freeze … if a framework agreement is agreed upon.” Though the Israelis have not yet responded, the pattern is true to form; a report from Feb. 16 highlighted a suspected "softening" in Mahmoud Abbas' position on the Palestinian refugees.
The "softening" was not flexibility at all, as was claimed. Rather it was a restatement of a commitment the Palestinians ostensibly made long ago but recanted — that Abbas does not want to "drown Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees to change its nature” in the case of a peace settlement. What's ironic about all this isn't just the obvious resemblance to “Groundhog Day” — it's the utter disconnect between expectations and reality.
The illusion that the Palestinians have fostered in their national narrative (in which millions of refugees in their descendants return and create a new state) is as destructive to their own national aspirations as it is unworkable. Attachment to the “right of return” is an escape clause from any serious negotiations with the Israelis because both sides recognize it as a nonstarter with untenable political consequences for each of the respective populations.
Fearful of what such “concessions” might do to the very fabric of Palestinian society, enraged individuals like Ali Huwaidi, the Director of Palestinian Organization for the Right of Return "Thabit" in Beirut, lashed out at Abbas for daring to even put the matter on the negotiating table. He said, “Regardless of Abbas's statements, the right of return is guaranteed, individually and collectively, through UN resolutions. The refugees will not give up their right no matter where they are living today. Abbas is worried about flooding Israel with five million refugees while Israel has brought one million people from the former Soviet Union and no one complained about this. Our refugees will not accept any alternative to their right to return to their homeland and we do not care what Abbas's position is.”
Such statements highlight the gap between the parties. If the right of return is a non-starter for a wider Palestinian constituency, and is presented by ideological leaders as a non-negotiable red line, there is little basis for negotiating a lasting, durable peace.
The refugee issue has been woven into the fabric of Palestinian national identity — a narrative generated by a leadership culture without any accountability for its own calculated decision-making. Good intentions aside, the Obama administration will not be able to create a functional Palestinian nation-state by pursuing the same tired and ineffectual strategy over and over.
(Nicole Brackman is a historian who writes extensively on Israeli and Middle East politics. Asaf Romirowsky is a CIJR Academic Fellow and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.)