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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.