J Street crowd applauds Palestinian right of return

Fatah official’s demand that Israel give refugees options and recognize ‘the Nakba’ receives enthusiastic support

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Palestinian refugee holds up a key allegedly from his house in Beersheba, in southern Israel, during a rally in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 2013 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian refugee holds up a key allegedly from his house in Beersheba, in southern Israel, during a rally in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 2013 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Attendees at J Street’s annual conference in Washington, DC, reportedly applauded when a speaker on Monday pushed for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and when he called on Israel to recognize the Nakba, or the catastrophe as Palestinians refer to the displacement of refugees surrounding Israel’s creation.

“As for the refugee issue…,” said Husam Zomlot of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, according to a recording posted to Soundcloud and published by Tablet Magazine.

“How do you want me to sign a deal with my own hands that will compromise the rights of two thirds of the nation….How? How am I going to build cohesion and eternal peace on such a compromise? The big question is why do I have to compromise?”

“What do refugees want?” he continued. “They want… four options. Some of them might want to stay where they are. Some of them might want to resettle somewhere else, in a third country. Some of them might want to choose to come back to the state of Palestine. And some of them might want to return to their original homes. But all of them- all of them- want one thing. Full recognition of the Nakba that has befallen our people. (sustained applause)”

Allowing Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and their descendants into Israel is considered a nonstarter by Israel.

Zomlot, a former PLO representative to the UK, has taught at Harvard and at the University of London. Last year, he told 972 Mag that “resistance, including armed resistance, is a right [of Palestinians].”

Speaking about his own father, a refugee, Zomlot commented that he likely would not choose coming to Israel, but “he has to be given that option. It’s his right to choose that option.” The audience once again interrupted him with applause.

An attendee at the conference told The Times of Israel that when a speaker said on Sunday that the Palestinians need to understand that there will be no right of return, the audience applauded, as well.

According to J Street’s blog, “The refugee issue should be negotiated and resolved as part of an agreement between official Israeli and Palestinian authorities and endorsed by both peoples. J Street would support the approach outlined in commonly accepted models of a two-state solution under which the vast majority of refugees would be resettled outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel, while receiving compensation.”

J Street’s 2013 national conference, called “Our Time to Lead,” runs from Saturday to Tuesday.

J Street bills itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. Since its founding in 2008, J Street has come under fire from the Israeli government and from some pro-Israel figures in Washington for its criticism of the Israeli government.

American law professor and prominent pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz accused the lobby group last year of “totally undercutting American policy toward Iran,” and of misrepresenting the views of prominent Israelis over thwarting Iran.

J Street, in response, accused Dershowitz of “attacking positions we have not taken.

J Street has had tense relations with the Netanyahu government, which sought to marginalize the group for not fully supporting Israeli efforts to push back against investigations of Israel’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead, and for wavering on Iran sanctions until late 2009.

The crowd’s reaction to Zomlot’s statements was not the only response that will catch the attention of J Street’s critics.

Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor Party) received markedly tepid applause when she said that “we believe in a free and democratic Israel with a strong army and secure borders to defend not only our people but our values.” And when she paused after adding “this is the true Zionist dream,” there was no applause at all.

In addition, a conference attendee told The Times of Israel that posters at the conference showed Israel in one color, the West Bank in another, and did not show the Golan Heights at all.

On Monday, US Vice President Joe Biden addressed the J Street conference — the highest-ranking American official to do so this year.
Martin Indyk, the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, will also address the conference, serving as the keynote speaker for the gala dinner to be held on Monday night.

J Street has repeatedly emphasized that it views this year’s conference as unprecedented in the number and diversity of its participants, among whom are a number of members of Congress as well as representatives of six Knesset parties.

The Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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