Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The danger of boilerplate answers

Ben Rhodes, President Obama's chief foreign policy speechwriter, has given a very odd answer to a question concerning the rights Jews who were forced from Arab nations after the creation of the State of Israel. To remind you, approximately 800,000 Jews left Arab and Muslim nations under duress, many leaving behind both their life savings and all their belongings. A questioner asked Rhodes for the White House position on "their rights an grievances". Seems a fair question.

The answer was wacky. Rhodes, rather than discussing restitution, acknowledgements of past wrongs, protection of heritage sites, return of sacred object and other potential, real world remedies, chose to address "the right of return". He also talked about these people as if they were still, after 50 or 60 years, "refugees". Unlike the Palestinians, whose refugee status has been enforced by the other Arab nations, none of whom, including Jordan and Egypt who occupied the West Bank and Gaza respectively from 1948-1967, has granted Palestinian refugees and their descendants citizenship even after all these years. That is not the case with Israel and it's Jews of Mizrahi and Sephardi descent. They aren't exactly pining to return to Iraq and Syria.

Here's Rhodes answer:

"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."

So was Rhodes on autopilot, or does he actually believe that these Israelis are still refugees, and that they would want to return to their or their parents' or their grandparents' nations of birth? Does he believe that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could somehow resolve that illusory issue or the very real issues I outlined above? I vote for autopilot.

Alana Goldman in Commentary asks whether Rhodes was signalling that Palestinian right of return should be on the table for negotiation between the two parties. I wonder about this. Rhodes' off-handed answer may reflect an underlying belief on the part of the administration that this issue is a legitimate point of negotiation not leading to the demographic end of Israel (the intention of most of those who advocate it), but as a bargaining chip to be offset by something else of benefit to the Palestinians.

Parsing ill-considered statements such as this is a little like reading tea leaves. I'd much rather have the White House clarify their positions on these matters than discern them from an incoherent remark.

2 comments:

Talhe said...

I doubt the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews will ever get compensated. Much of the Arab/Islamic world thinks that those Jews lived in a idyllic paradise of coexistence, and not even Israel's 'friend' Egypt was especially forthcoming about its Jews (I might be mistaken on that part).

David Schraub said...

I literally see nothing in Rhodes' answer other than acknowledgment that compensation for Jewish refugees forced to flee their homes in the time surrounding '48 (and perhaps their descendants) could be a part of peace negotiations -- a very reasonable answer to a very reasonable question.

Contrary to Mr. Rogin's post, at no point does Mr. Rhodes say a word about a right of return -- that is made up entirely by Mr. Rogin on the basis of no discernible evidence (I've emailed Rogin asking if there is more to this conversation implying a "right of return" was discussed, but he hasn't responded). Somebody, please, correct me if I'm missing something: Rogin lists what he calls the "full exchange" between Rhodes and the questioner, and "right of return" just isn't mentioned at all.

The only story here is what appears to be massive journalistic malpractice by Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy. "Right of return" wasn't mentioned in the question posed by the B'nai B'rith official, nor was it part of the answer given by Mr. Rhodes. By all appearances it looks like it was simply made up by Josh Rogin, and now it is going to turn into a myth that won't die.

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