November 22, 2017 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 141

The Impossible Deal Of The Century

November 22, 2017
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 141

By: Ze'ev B. Begin*

Can the "deal of the century" be brokered between Israel and the PLO? Some people think it is within reach. Shaul Arieli,[1] who was involved in previous rounds of peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, recently proposed a recipe: "a compromise that fits the essential interests of the parties, based on the parameters that dictated the negotiations in Annapolis in 2008." And so, despite all indications on the ground, the assumption that this unique conflict can end with a formal peace agreement between the PLO and Israel continues to run around in our backyard like a headless chicken – thought has vanished; only reflexes are at work.

But let us remember that, back in 2008, the PLO leadership rejected the "parameters" three times: In mid-September 'Abbas refrained from responding to then-prime minister Olmert's generous  proposal; in November 'Abbas rejected the request of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to inform her that he had accepted Olmert's proposal; and in December, when President George Bush beseeched 'Abbas to tell him, in the privacy of the Oval Office, that he had accepted it, 'Abbas refused again. In her memoirs (No Higher Honor, 2011) Rice wrote: "The Palestinian stood firm, and the idea died."

Last year, adhering to the infamous PLO Charter, PLO Chairman 'Abbas stated at the UN General Assembly (September 21, 2016): "The notorious Balfour Declaration in which Britain, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, gave the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road to the Nakba of the Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land."[2]

The political significance of this statement is clear: Palestine was plundered from its sole legitimate owners, the Palestinian Arabs. In other words, the PLO cleaves to its fundamental ideological claim that the Palestinian Arabs enjoy the exclusive right to sovereignty in the whole of Palestine. Political recognition of Israel, such as in the Oslo Accords, or even declaring the acceptance of its "right to exist," (but not as the nation state of the Jewish people,as categorically reaffirmed by Fatah's Seventh Congress in 2016) do not contradict this ideology as long as this claim is being kept alive. Therefore, the PLO is unable – and indeed has refused – to sign a peace treaty with Israel that includes the essential "end of claims" declaration as long as a sovereign Jewish entity exists in Palestine.

This position is diplomatically awkward, so the PLO masks it by stressing another issue, that of the Palestinian Arab refugees. Some Israeli politicians and scholars amuse themselves by speculating on how many refugees would have to be admitted into the State of Israel as part of a peace agreement that would satisfy the PLO and allow it to declare "an end to all claims." In 2008 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed to accept several thousand refugees, but the PLO rejected this. Dr. Shaul Arieli[3] claimed that there is "an official Palestinian position, according to which the number of Palestinian refugees who would return to Israel – with Israel's consent – would be between 50,000 and 100,000." Professor Moshe Ma'oz claimed[4] that in 2008 'Abbas gave Olmert the figure of 150,000; Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri suggested[5]  that the magic number that would satisfy the PLO would be 250,000 refugees.

This argument about the numbers is futile, because one essential preliminary condition cannot be met. Arieli asserted in his article that "there is need for a joint [Israel-PLO] formula concerning the narrative of the refugee issue." This need has never been met. Despite all the intensive efforts, the elusive "joint formula" has not been found. Following many discussions with PLO leaders over the years, Avneri recently described the required formula:[6] "The principle [of the right of return to Israel] cannot be rejected. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred. Any future peace agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian State will have to include a clause confirming that Israel accepts, in principle, the right of return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader will be able to sign a treaty that does not include such a clause." This is correct, but it is equally true that no Israeli leader will be able to sign a treaty that does include such a clause.

Recently, 'Abbas was explicit and clear when he wrote: "We also reiterate that, in order to end claims with Israel, there must be a just solution for the seven million Palestinian refugees[7] based on the choice of every refugee."[8]   More than a million Arab refugees live in western Palestine, a short distance from the villages in which they lived in the past. Like 'Abbas, they hold that the only possible "solution" involves the realization of their personal right to choose between returning to their original homes and receiving financial compensation. This belief is well exemplified by the entrance to the Al-Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, whose name means "the one who returns." The entrance is spanned by an arch bearing a large key, the symbol of return. It is the long-term PLO position that, since the application of the "right of return" is "based on the choice of every refugee," the PLO is not authorized to sign, on behalf of the refugees, any agreement that curtails this right.

This principle was vividly described by 'Abbas few days after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David negotiations:[9] "The Palestinian delegation refused to specify the number of Palestinians that would be allowed to return. Even if they had  offered us [to allow the return of] three million refugees, [we would have refused], as we told them. This is because we wanted them to accept the principle, and then we would have reached an agreement concerning the return of the refugees or compensation for those who did not wish to return." Evidently, nothing has changed since then and the PLO still maintains that no quota of "returning" refugees is acceptable. Hence, the refugees issue cannot be disentangled and the road to a final peace agreement is blocked.

The special circumstances of this unique conflict lead to a unique political conclusion: A peace agreement between Israel and the PLO is out of reach, whatever the composition of the Israeli government. And what about the future? A partial answer can be found in schoolbooks published in 2016 by the Palestinian Authority.  For example, here is what the pupils are taught in the eleventh grade: "The Green Line: an imaginary line that appeared in green on maps after the 1967 war in order to separate the Palestinian territory that Israel conquered in 1948 from the territory  it conquered in 1967." And this is what they learn in the third grade: "Let us sing and learn by heart: I swear, I shall sacrifice my blood in order to water the land of the noble ones, and I shall remove the usurper from my land, and shall exterminate the scattered remnants of the foreigners. O Land of the Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and the Holy Site, o cradle of pride and nobility, patience, patience, because victory is ours, and dawn will shine out of the darkness."[10]

Admittedly, agreements between enemies that did include an explicit end-of-claims clause have been breached in the past, but no responsible person would consider signing a peace treaty that does not include one. This clause is essential, for it expresses the distinction between a permanent peace agreement and an interim agreement – such as the 1949 armistice agreements or the Oslo Accords – that still allows the parties to entertain their plans and hopes. This is not a petty game of formalities – this small clause indicates the readiness of the other side to declare – first and foremost to its own people – that it accepts a compromise as the final settlement. In the absence of such readiness, one must conclude that the other party is not ripe for  true peace, and that it will seek to find an opportunity to renew the war.

No Israeli government, no matter what its political composition, can sign a "peace treaty" with the PLO that does not contain an explicit clause declaring an end to all mutual claims. Yet we saw above why the PLO cannot include such declaration in an agreement with Israel. All the President's horses and all the President's men cannot bridge this gap.

The picture is now clear. The PLO, with or without its Hamas partners, cannot sign a peace treaty with any Israeli government. This conclusion is the sole basis for a realistic policy by Israel and its allies.


* This article was written following a discussion that took place last month in the Israeli daily Haaretz, on the chances of a permanent Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.


[1]  Haaretz (Israel), October 4, 2017.

[2], September 23, 2016.

[3] Haaretz (Israel), October 4, 2017.

[4] Haaretz (Israel), October 17, 2017.

[5] Haaretz (Israel), October 17, 2017.

[6] Haaretz (Israel), October 13, 2017.

[7] In his September 2016 UNGA speech, 'Abbas gave the number of Palestinian refugees as six million.

[9] Al-Ayyam (PA), July 30, 2000.

[10] Center for Near East Policy Research (,

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