What will wake Americans up to Israel's role in our foreign policy? Here is an AP story on the Senate amendment that pushes for the stripping of millions of Palestinian refugees of their rights.
In recent months, however, Knesset member Einat Wilf has talked of restructuring UNRWA and addressing the refugee issue.
Wait, what does the Knesset have to do with American legislation? I guess some Americans care what the Knesset wants, though:
"There's a sense with the peace process really flat-lining right now, it's not going to get tackled at the negotiating table," [Foundation for the Defense of Democracies VP Jonathan] Schanzer said. "The sense among the Israelis is maybe this is the time to do it."
Kirk and his staff acted on that signal, pushing an amendment in the Senate committee that asked which refugees lived in the West Bank and Gaza and which ones lived elsewhere.
The senator is still recovering from a stroke suffered in January and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced the amendment for him.
Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides wrote the committee to oppose the amendment, saying the refugee issue "strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies." Nides said forcing the United States to take a position on permanent status issues could undermine Mideast peace efforts and have a destabilizing impact on key allies, such as Jordan, with its significant Palestinian refugee population.
The AP is clear about the political implications. It says the Obama administration is opposed to the legislation. But how forcefully?
Whatever step the Obama administration takes in an election year is certain to resonate as Republicans and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney persist in questioning the president's commitment to Israel.
And here is the State Department briefing the other day. Notice how Mark Toner evades any real condemnation of the Senate action.
QUESTION: I’m curious, is there a position – do you have a position on the final language that was put into the foreign ops bill by Senator Leahy, which watered down what Senator Kirk wanted? Are you okay with this idea that – of counting Palestinian refugees?
MR. TONER: Well, you know there was a letter that Deputy Secretary Nides did write to – about – to the chairman about this proposed amendment. And what he – what this letter raised was simply that the status of Palestinian refugees is clearly a final status issue between Israel and --
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But I want to know if you take a position on the language that ultimately ended up in the bill.
MR. TONER: Well, again, we – the final language I haven’t seen, frankly. But our position on this is that we want to see UNRWA funding continue. It’s to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees, as well as those displaced by the 1967 conflict in Jordan and Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza and the West Bank.
QUESTION: Well, can you take the question --
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- as to what the Administration’s position is on --
MR. TONER: I’ll look at the final wording and see if we’re --
QUESTION: -- what the Leahy language is, because it was at least a little bit different than what Senator Kirk --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- had first proposed. And I’m not sure that I’ve seen any answer on whether you’re okay with that – with the revised language.
MR. TONER: But fundamentally, where we come down on this is that we don’t want to be viewed as prejudging or --
MR. TONER: -- predetermining the outcome of --
QUESTION: No, I understand that. But it’s the just the case if --
MR. TONER: Refugee status.
QUESTION: -- you’re okay – but if you’re okay with that language, then I would wonder if you were also okay with language that would say: Okay, you have to map out the area that – where there are illegitimate – what you consider to be illegitimate settlements – how much land that actually is. So I mean, I want to know if you’re okay with this, which involves counting the refugees – which is, as you say, a final status issue – are you okay with also inserting yourself into other final status issues?
MR. TONER: Well, again, just to be clear, and I’ll – we will look at the final language as it appeared – UNRWA does have a specific number of refugees that it does count for this. That said – and we continue to support funding for UNRWA, but that said, we still consider the final status of refugees to be something that needs to be worked out between the parties.
QUESTION: Two quick --
QUESTION: A follow-up on that.
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I had two quick –
QUESTION: Just on that --
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. Would the United States – considering that the refugee issue is part of the final status of talks that the United States has shepherded for a very long time, would the U.S. be – or does it do independent, sort of, survey of how many Palestinian refugees there are in the --
MR. TONER: Not – certainly not that I’m aware of. As I said, UNRWA does have a number – a global number that they work with, the number of Palestinian refugees. But again, we’re not saying that that’s the number in and of itself that we want to see going forward. That final status would be something for the two parties to negotiate.
QUESTION: So absent American conduct of independent, let’s say, census of Palestinian refugees, the U.S. Government would take the figures that UNRWA does submit, correct?
MR. TONER: Not at all. I said that that’s – that ultimate number is something to be determined through the parties.