Here's a man-bites-dog story: The director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's New York Representative Office, Andrew Whitley, told a conference in Washington that Palestinians should accept that they will never return to Israel and, rather than continue to dream of this, they should work to improve their current circumstances.
If one doesn't start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be—for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes—then we are storing up trouble for ourselves. …
Andrew Whitley of UNRWA.
We recognize, as I think most do, although it's not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent. It's not a politically palatable issue, it's not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it's a known contour to the issue.
Whitley concluded these startling remarks by suggesting that UNRWA should resettle its clients rather than continue to perpetuate their refugee status.
Comment: How refreshing to hear such words. As I put it in 2009, were Palestinians to give up on their irredentist dream of eliminating Israel, this "would liberate them to focus on their own polity, economy, society, and culture" and "become a normal people." (October 23, 2010)
Nov. 3, 2010 update: After complaints from the Palestinian Authority, the Jordanian government, and many others, Whitley abjectly apologized for his remarks in a letter to the UNRWA spokesman:
I am writing following my realisation – from media reports, statements and letters from individuals, organisations and governments – that part of the remarks I delivered at a conference in Washington hosted by the National Council on US – Arab Relations, on 22 October, 2010, were inappropriate and wrong. Those remarks did not represent UNRWA's views.
I express my sincere regrets and apologies over any harm that my words may have done to the cause of the Palestine refugees and for any offence I may have caused. I have spent much of my long career workinxxg for the Palestinian people, and defending their rights, in different professional capacities. It is definitely not my belief that the refugees should give up on their basic rights, including the right of return.
I wish to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA, an organisation I have been proud to serve since July 2002. The Agency is at liberty to use my statement in whatever ways it sees fit. There is no need for a reply.
In an undated announcement from the UNRWA spokesmen, the organization stated that it "unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by … Andrew Whitley. … These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the Agency and are the personal views of Mr Whitley."
Comment: That UNRWA might contemplate going out of business and helping end the Arab-Israeli conflict – it was too good to be true.
Dec. 7, 2010 update: Well, that did not take long; an UNRWA document from today refers to "Andrew Whitley, the outgoing Director of UNRWA's Liaison Office in New York."