In a move that could scuttle renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts now that the war in Iraq is over, the Palestinians have included in their new constitution their right to return to homes they fled in 1948. But the Israeli government insisted this week that the “road map” toward the creation of a Palestinian state be amended to preclude the right of return.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that the road map would not be altered before its release despite the “preliminary comments” of Israelis. He was apparently referring to Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, who gave an upbeat assessment of his meetings Monday with top administration officials, including Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

In a statement Monday, Weisglass said he was “confident the U.S. will give serious consideration to our views as the process moves forward.”

Weisglass reportedly sought changes in 15 separate categories of the peace plan, including one that calls for the Palestinians and Israelis to take simultaneous actions. Israel wants the process to be sequential, with the Palestinians first stopping all terror attacks before being required to impose a settlement freeze.

Several analysts said the U.S. is expected to insist that the right-of-return issue be shelved until the last step in the three-phase road map schedule that is to end in a Palestinian state with permanent borders in 2005.

“The American response would be, ‘Trust us,’ ” said Eran Lerman, director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. “What it means is that they should go forward on [other issues] and the Israeli refusal to the right of return is going to be upheld. Most of us believe that implementation of phase three is not very high. The people here do not make very much of the road map.”

Asked about the inclusion of the right of return in the constitution, Lerman said: “I don’t think there is a Palestinian leader at the moment who is ready to give up a central item on the Palestinian agenda…. The big question is if they would be willing to go into a process that does not guarantee what they will get.”

Israelis agree that allowing the right of return would be suicidal for Israel, since it would soon give the Palestinians a majority, allowing them to undo the Jewish state democratically.

Allowing Israel and the Palestinians to start their talks over this fundamental issue will “result in a real donnybrook from day one,” pointed out Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum. “If Israel wants to talk about the right of return at the beginning, the Palestinians will talk of an Israeli return to the 1967 borders.”

But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Sharon had set as a “precondition” for talks an end to the right-of-return issue.

“This is a non-starter,” he said. “We knew they were going to try to put this in [to the Palestinian constitution]…. Israel cannot go into negotiations under the threat that the right of return is on the table. It can’t happen. This is a critical issue for Sharon; no government of Israel could accept it.”

The road map will not be released, however, until the cabinet of the Palestinian’s newly appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, is confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Council. Although Palestinian President Yasir Arafat does not have veto power over Abbas’ cabinet appointments, his displeasure with the selection has delayed the formation of the cabinet – and Abbas serves at the pleasure of Arafat. Arafat is said to be upset that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, wants to replace many members of the cabinet he assembled late last year. A two-week extension Abbas was granted to assemble his cabinet runs out next week.

“Arafat is trying to sabotage Abu Mazen,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Everything else is theoretical unless this issue is resolved.”

Would Refugees Return?

There are an estimated 3 million Palestinian refugees living today in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Kalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research at Berzeit University, is now conducting the first definitive survey of the refugees to learn how many truly wish to return to their former homes in Israel.

Preliminary results, based on interviews with those in the West Bank and Jordan, have found that only a small number wish to return, according to Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“If you ask a general question, ‘Do you want to go back?’ the answer is yes,” Siegman said he was told. “But when you ask follow-up questions – such as would they go back if their home is no longer there – the percentage who still want to return is incredibly low.”

Siegman said the results of the survey “will have important consequences in the Palestinian community. If only a small percentage are prepared to go back, why make a war over this? Why sacrifice the major issues like state building and the end of occupation and Palestinian suffering for the sake of a principle that only a tiny fraction of Palestinian refugees are prepared to exercise?”

But Nabil Shaath, chairman of the committee that wrote the Palestinian constitution, said that although he was aware of the survey, the issue is important enough to be included in the constitution.

“The refugee issue is a basic element of the Oslo agreement,” he told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “The refugee issue is to be negotiated in the final status [talks], therefore you do not give up something that is supposed to be negotiated about. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying beforehand that Israel must give up its right to security. The constitution says the right of refugees to return will be negotiated.”

But David Bedein of the Israel Resource News Agency said he obtained a copy of the Palestinian constitution that was finalized March 26 and that it explicitly includes the “right of return to homes from 1948.”

Shaath insisted, however, that the constitution says only that this is something Palestinians “will strive to assert… through negotiation.” He noted that in peace talks with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel was willing to accept that right and compensate Palestinians for the loss of their property. He said that there was also talk of allowing some Palestinians to return to Israel for the purpose of family reunification, although the number was never agreed upon.

“The decision to return to one’s village that may not now exist in Israel is going to be very difficult for people,” Shaath acknowledged, “but they need to feel that at least they have the option and that their right has not been trampled upon. How many people will exercise that right is very difficult to say; at this stage of the game it’s not a very large number.”

Shaath added that Abbas and Arafat were seeking to work out their differences and hoped to resolve them by the weekend.

Once Abbas’ cabinet is confirmed, he is expected to be invited to the White House. And this week British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Sharon to London. Observers said Blair realizes there will be no peace in the Middle East without Sharon’s support, and that in recent days Blair has toned down his earlier strident calls for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Lerman said many Israelis see the road map as nothing more than a device to kick-start the peace process and that “from then on it will just roll over into practical solutions that are put together in bilateral negotiations.”

Sharon made a move to do just that this week, telling the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot that he plans to meet with Abbas as soon as the new Palestinian cabinet is confirmed, that he will “not wait for any mediators.” But he said chances for peace would be complicated if Abbas does not have broad authority and Arafat continues to be the one “pulling the strings.” Sharon reiterated that he is prepared to make what he has called “painful decisions” in his quest for peace. And he said the defeat of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein had opened a new opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“In my opinion, real peace, peace for generations, peace that does not give birth to suicide bombers and terrorist organizations, requires concessions,” he told the paper. “It is likely that there will be settlements that we will have to dismantle.”

But Siegman said it was far from certain that Abbas would be able to assemble a cabinet free from Arafat’s interference. After having met with him at length two days before his appointment as prime minister, Siegman said he is convinced that Abbas will quit “if he doesn’t get his way.”

Sharon To U.S.: Pressure Syria

Sharon in an interview with the same paper this week called on the United States to pressure Syria into ousting Palestinian terrorist organizations from their headquarters in Damascus, and Hezbollah terrorists from their perch along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Calling Syrian President Bashar Assad a “dangerous” man whose “judgment is impaired,” Sharon added: “He has a force that is under his thumb – Hezbollah – and that is dangerous.”

He also expressed satisfaction with U.S. criticism of Syria for allegedly harboring Iraqi war criminals, funneling illegal weapons and fighters into Iraq during the war, and supporting terrorist organizations. The U.S. has demanded a list of the Iraqi war criminals in Syria, but stressed that there are no plans to attack Syria. Powell did say Monday, however, that the U.S. was examining “possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature” against Syria. The next day, the U.S. announced that it had shut down a pipeline that reportedly carried as much as 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil daily to Syria in defiance of United Nations sanctions.

Jewish groups in the U.S. are keeping a low profile on the issue, according to Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

“It’s similar to the reaction before the Iraq war; no Jew wanted Saddam to stay in power, but there were fears that he would retaliate against Israel, and that Jews would be blamed for the war,” she said. “It’s much easier for Syria to attack Israel than it was for Iraq. And there’s very little the United States can do to prevent it.” n This piece ran in the Jewish Week of April 18, 2003