The Cable

White House: Jewish “refugees” right of return should be “on the table”

The right of Jews to return to the Arab and predominantly Muslim countries they fled from or were kicked out of over several decades could be "on the table" as part of the Middle East peace negotiations, according to a senior White House official.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for communications and President Barack Obama's chief speechwriter on foreign policy, talked about what's known as the "Jewish right of return" during an off-the-record conference call with Jewish community leaders on May 20, only one day after Obama's major speech on the Middle East. A recording of the call was provided to The Cable.

In response to a question asking why there is a great deal of focus on the Palestinian refugee issue but almost no focus on the Jews who departed Arab lands, Rhodes declared that the Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate on the Jewish right of return to Arab and Muslim countries and that the United States could play in role in mediating that issue.

Here's the full exchange:

"While Palestinian refugees have concerns that are understandable and need to be dealt with in the peace process, there was no reference in the president's speech to the approximately one million Jewish refugees that emerged from the same Middle East conflict. I'm talking about Jews from Arab and Muslim countries who were forced out of their homelands where they had lived for centuries," said B'nai B'rith International Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield.

"The international community has never acknowledged their rights and their grievances," Fusfield continued, "[C]an the U.S., as the peace process move forward, play a role in advancing the rights and concerns of these Jewish refugee groups and help ensure that as refugee issues are dealt with... that the focus will not just be on one refugee group but on all refugee groups emerging from the same conflict?"

Rhodes responded: "Certainly the U.S., in our role, is attuned to all the concerns on both sides to include interests among Israel and others in Jewish refugees, so it is something that would come up in the context of negotiations. And certainly, we believe that ultimately the parties themselves should negotiate this. We can introduce ideas, we can introduce parameters for potential negotiation."

"We believe those types of issues that you alluded to could certainly be a part of that discussion and put on the table and it's something that we would obviously be involved in."

The issue of refugees can be a confusing one. GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain said on May 21 that the Palestinian refugees' right of return was "something that should be negotiated." Cain later admitted that he didn't fully understand the issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the argument that Palestinian refugees have the right of return to Israel in his Tuesday speech before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.

"[T]he Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel," he said. "You know, everybody knows this. It's time to say it. It's important."

But neither Obama nor Netanyahu mentioned the Jewish right of return in any of their speeches or remarks over the past few days.

Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, said that the Jewish right of return is actually not an issue that's part of the peace negotiations, largely due to the fact that a) there are no Jewish refugees, and b) they don't have any desire to claim lands in Arab states.

"I would like to congratulate the administration for even-handedness, but in fact there are no Jewish refugees today. That's because the Jews who were expelled from Arab countries have been citizens of Israel for decades, where they live in freedom and prosperity," he said.

The Cable

Granger: No aid for Egypt if Muslim Brotherhood has large presence

President Barack Obama announced $2 billion in new aid to Egypt in his May 19 speech on the Middle East, but top appropriators in the House said on Monday that they don't support giving the money to any government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood.

House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) and ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY) spoke at a Monday afternoon panel at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington. Asked by The Cable if they supported Obama's new aid initiative to Egypt, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood sees increased power as part of an elected government, Granger said, "The answer for me is no. I don't approve of it."

The crowd erupted in applause.

"Who is the new Egyptian government? We don't know. That's the problem," Granger went on.

"Because it was a bottom-up uprising, we don't have the organization, we don't have the parties, we don't have what it takes to win an election. The Muslim Brotherhood does, because they've been there so long. So they have the opportunity to take a much larger position in the government that they had before," she said. "We have got to watch it, and we have to be very, very careful about giving over money to a government, and we don't know what that government is."

The issue of foreign assistance to Egypt was part of a larger discussion about funding emerging democracies that include elements hostile to U.S. interests. Granger and Lowey, for example, promised that no U.S. money would go to a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas.

Lowey said that she supported using the money to build Egyptian democracy, but emphasized that Congress was not going to appropriate it and Obama would have to find it somewhere else.

In his May 19 speech, Obama promised to relieve $1 billion of Egypt's debt, and also guarantee another $1 billion in loans that he said is needed "to finance infrastructure and job creation."

"We are not going to appropriate this money to the Egyptian government," said Lowey. "We are currently giving them billions of dollars in military aid and we're going to have to see about that as well," she said.

"That is not new money. That money is coming from multilateral banks, money that's been appropriated... it's not just U.S.," she said. "For the sake of the other cuts in the budget, we don't want it to be new money."

On May 18, a senior administration official provided details of the funding plan, which called for the United States to provide Egypt with the equivalent of $2 billion over several years, as well as billions more from international institutions.

"We anticipate that the debt swap, both relief of debt and the investments that would ensue, would amount to roughly a billion over a few years and that the loan guarantees would support roughly an additional billion," the official said. "There will be additional financing coming from the multilateral development banks as well, several billion dollars."

As for the overall funding picture for foreign aid, Lowey said that appropriators are expecting a $5 billion cut from the president's request in 2012.

Granger criticized the cuts made in the 2011 budget.

"It was a big mistake that they cut foreign operations," she said. "It is going to be a very, very tough year."