Yesterday, news broke in the halls of Congress that an amendment to the 2013 Foreign Operations Appropriation bill by my junior senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) that caused a tempest in a (mint) teapot this week in Washington was defeated in Senate subcommittee. According to Foreign Policy magazine’s summary of the proposed modifications, which do not appear in print (multiple phone calls and emails to Kirk’s offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C. to obtain a copy of the text were not returned), the Senator was originally seeking changes to legislative language that would narrowly redefine the number and status of Palestinian refugees. If the old adage is that the pen is mightier than the sword, the heated debate over this piece of legislation has the potential to fundamentally alter consideration of the right of return under a future final status agreement between Israel and a Palestinian state.

A longtime public servant, Kirk was elected to fill the vacated Senate seat of President Barack Obama in 2010. A traditional ally of the State of Israel, the senator recently co-sponsored the Iran sanctions bill and denounced the UN bid for a Palestinian state. According to one source, he received upwards of a million dollars from pro-Israel PACs in 2010, ranking the #7 highest recipient in Congress. In the eyes of some of his critics, he is considered “an extremist on Israel and Middle East peace.” However, it’s hard to know how the Senator has time for these problems. Having tragically suffered a stroke at age 52 in January, he has yet to return to Washington.

The substance of Kirk’s proposed legislation went to the heart of the debate over the right of return for Palestinian refugees. At issue is the definition of “who is a refugee” and US government patronage of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has assisted (some say, handicapped) this population since 1950. According to UNRWA, their body considers Palestinian refugees not only those “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict,” but also the descendents of this first generation of displaced persons. In their estimation, the original cohort of approximately 860,000 refugees has now swelled to 5 million eligible to receive services across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The significance of this inclusive definition is clear for the balance of demographic power in Israel/Palestine, as the combined tally of Palestinians and UNRWA refugees would dwarf the current population of 5.931 million Jewish citizens in the State of Israel, were a comprehensive “right of return” to be enacted.

Senator Kirk’s original amendment sought to change this equation by restricting the US government’s definition of refugees (and funding of UNRWA’s activities) to those “personally displaced” in 1948 and 1967, of which only an estimated 30,000 remain. After it was shelved over objections from the State Department and Kingdom of Jordan (which has its own interests in maintaining UNRWA support), Kirk turned to AIPAC to develop compromise language that called for an accounting of various categories of first-generation refugees and their descendants. Senator Leahy’s final amendment today incorporated much of this wording. Kirk’s spokesperson assured the media that the vote would not change US government policy toward UNRWA or affect its current funding (to the tune of $249.4 million in 2011, approximately one third of its budget), but “the amendment simply demands transparency with regard to who receives US taxpayer assistance.”

For both proponents (including the researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies that provoked the controversy but failed to disclose his thinktank’s support for the bill) and opponents of this legislation, the debate has focused on narrow issues of demography. However, I am deeply troubled by the larger questions of authenticity raised by this discourse. Time and time again, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to an issue of who has the “truthier” argument to bear in court of public opinion. If the conflict is simply reduced to who can will (or define) the other out of existence, then any attempt to diminish the genuineness and legitimacy of Palestinian refugees is bound to cut both ways. Once you get into this business, it is plausible that one could contest that the massive immigration INTO Israel since 1948 should not be considered authentic Israelis. If this logic is taken to its extreme, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are authentic peoples and have any claim to live in their respective homelands. While the right of return must be adjudicated in a final status agreement that both Israel and the future Palestinian state can abide by, the Congressional pen must not be used as a sword. I hope Senator Kirk will amend his own views on the issue in the future.

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