Haley: Palestinian ‘right of return’ should be ‘off the table’
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Haley: Palestinian ‘right of return’ should be ‘off the table’

Signaling move towards major policy shift, US ambassador to UN questions Palestinian refugee numbers as Trump administration prepares to roll out peace plan

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Tuesday questioned Palestinian claims to a “right of return” to modern Israel, saying she believed that the hot button issue should be taken “off the table.”

Commenting on one of the most sensitive and inflammatory issues of the Israel Palestinian conflict, Haley suggested the Trump administration would consider an official rejection of the Palestinian demand that all refugees who were displaced between 1947 and 1948 — as well as all of their descendants — be allowed to return to modern day Israel following a final peace accord.

“I absolutely think we have to look at right of return,” she said during an appearance at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a DC-based think tank closely aligned with Israel.

Asked whether the issue should be “off the table,” Haley replied: “I do agree with that, and I think we have to look at this in terms of what’s happening [with refugees] in Syria, what’s happening in Venezuela.”

The “right of return” is one of the key core issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that five million people — tens of thousands of original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — have a “right of return.” Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers. Israel’s population is almost nine million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions would mean Israel could no longer be a Jewish-majority state.

Over the weekend, Israel’s Hadashot News reported that the Trump administration was preparing to roll out a firm position against the “right of return” in the coming days. White House officials have refused to comment on the validity of that report.

The TV report said the US will announce a policy that, “from its point of view, essentially cancels the ‘right of return’.” It said the US in early September will produce a report that says there are actually only some half-a-million Palestinians who should be legitimately considered refugees, and make plain that it rejects the UN designation under which the millions of descendants of the original refugees are also considered refugees.

That news came as the White House peace team is preparing to unveil its long-awaited peace proposal, which officials say will come in the near future, although they have provided no timetable for its publication.

Palestinian employees of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA take part in a protest against job cuts announced by the agency, at its headquarters in Gaza City July 25, 2018. (SAID KHATIB/AFP)

Haley also commented on Washington’s aid cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for Palestinian humanitarian assistance, which says there are more than five million refugees alive today, even though there were roughly 750,000 after the 1948 War of Independence.

“You’re looking at the fact that, yes, there’s an endless number of refugees that continue to get assistance,” Haley said, while also insisting that the Trump White House would not restore its previous funding levels unless the body made dramatic changes.

“We will be a donor if [UNRWA] reforms what it does … if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account, we will look back at partnering them,” she said, adding that “the Palestinians continue to bash America” and yet “they have their hand out wanting UNRWA money.”

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has been pushing to remove the refugee status of millions of Palestinians as part of an apparent effort to shutter UNRWA.

Israel often argues that an independent Palestinian state, if agreed upon in negotiations, would absorb Palestinian refugees and their descendants, just as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and north African countries over the decades.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Relations between the US and the Palestinian Authority have soured ever since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and later relocated the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas strongly castigated the move and has since refused to meet with any administration officials, saying the Trump White House is unable to act as an honest mediator in peace talks.

In January, Washington announced it also would withhold the $65 million in assistance to UNRWA from a promised $350 million for 2018, following Palestinian outrage over Trump’s decision.

Haley said on Tuesday that other Arab states in the Middle East needed to pressure the Palestinians to change course if there were ever to be a final peace accord.

“We have to have them come to the table for a peace agreement,” Haley said. “That’s only going to happen if the region pushes them for that to happen.”

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