WASHINGTON (May. 18)
In a further attempt to defuse a political ruckus in Israel, the State Department has clarified that a 1948 United Nations resolution guaranteeing a Palestinian “right of return” is not an accepted basis for the current Middle East peace process.
Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday that the only U.N. measures that have been accepted by all parties as terms of reference for the peace talks are Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the return of land in exchange for peace.
While Tutwiler did not mention Resolution 194 by name, her statement was clearly intended to reassure Israel that the 1948 resolution on the Palestinian “right of return” has no official standing in the current round of peace talks.
That position appeared to backtrack from remarks Tutwiler made last week, in which she said the United States still supported the 1948 resolution.
Her remarks triggered an uproar in Israel, as politicians across the political spectrum denounced what they perceived to be a U.S. affirmation of the right of Palestinians to return to lands they fled after Israel gained statehood in 1948.
Despite subsequent clarifications and assurances offered by Secretary of State James Baker, Israeli government officials continued to speak out sharply this week against the American policy stance.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister David Levy said at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that anyone supporting a Palestinian right of return is torpedoing the peace process.
Police Minister Ronni Milo urged the government to submit a formal protest to Washington.
‘A TERRIBLE MISTAKE’
Still smarting from the brouhaha, Tutwiler told reporters Monday that the State Department has decided not to answer additional questions about the Middle East peace process until after Israel’s June 23 elections.
“Because this historic negotiating process is under way and particularly in the midst of a heated political campaign in Israel, henceforth I will not be responding to every comment or question on the peace process or on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” she said.
Tutwiler said that the State Department imposed a similar restriction on statements during an earlier Israeli election campaign that took place while she was spokeswoman.
Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League, said the State Department was now trying to “back off on the problems that they created for themselves” by supporting Resolution 194.
He called Tutwiler’s remarks last week “a terrible mistake. It was inappropriate from a tactical point of view and it was inappropriate from a substantive point of view,” he added.
Tutwiler’s clarification Monday came as multilateral talks on Middle East environmental issues opened in Tokyo. Participating were 37 delegations, including Israeli and Palestinian representatives.
Syria and Lebanon boycotted the talks, as they did when four other sets of talks on Middle East regional issues took place last week in Washington, Brussels, Ottawa and Vienna.
Israel boycotted two of those sessions — the talks on refugees, in Ottawa, and the talks on economic development, in Brussels — because of the participation of Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel fears the inclusion of such “diaspora Palestinians” implies that they have standing in the peace negotiations and could eventually bolster their case for a Palestinian “right of return.”
As for the environmental talks, Tokyo is taking its role as host seriously. The Japanese government recently sponsored a fact-finding trip to the region and reported that there were “severe” pollution problems in the Gulf of Aqaba, which is bordered by Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Those countries do cooperate at present on a technical level to discuss the flow of pollutants and coral reef communities. The Israeli government has proposed the creation of environmental data collection centers in the region, with uniform standards to be determined by the parties.
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)