Wed Dec 6, 3:43 PM ET
A reference to Palestinians' "right of return" in the report issued by the high-level Iraq Study Group broke a diplomatic taboo which sparked immediate concern in Israel and surprise among Middle East policy experts.
The reference was buried deep inside a 160-page report that urged US President George W. Bush to renew efforts to revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks as part of a region-wide bid to end the chaos in Iraq.
"This report is worrisome for Israel particularly because, for the first time, it mentions the question of the 'right of return' for the Palestinian refugees of 1948," said a senior Israeli official, who was reacting to the US policy report on condition he not be identified.
A Middle East analyst who was involved in the Iraq Study Group discussions but did not participate in drafting the report expressed surprise when the reference was pointed out to him by a reporter.
"It's hard to know whether that language got in there because of carelessness -- I know there were many revisions up to the very last minute -- or whether it was a deliberate attempt to fuse something to the Bush rhetoric which wasn't there before," the analyst said.
The 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians calls for a resolution of the issue of Israeli and Palestinian "refugees" as part of a final status agreement that would include the creation of a Palestinian state.
But they do not use the term "right of return", which is a long-standing Palestinian demand -- rejected by Israel -- that Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what was to become the Jewish state in 1948, as well as their descendants, be allowed to return home.
Bush, in a 2002 speech in the White House Rose Garden, became the first US president to formally back the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, but he also did not mention a right of Palestinian 'return'.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group's co-chairman is former secretary of state James Baker, who as the top diplomat for Bush's father in the early 1990s clashed with Israel over its handling of the Palestinian issue.
Among his group's 79 recommendations for a policy shift on Iraq, number 17 concerned five points it said should be included in a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The final point in the list was: "Sustainable negotiations leading to a final peace settlement along the lines of President Bush's two-state solution, which would address the key final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return and the end of conflict."
"'Right of return' is not in Oslo I or Oslo II, it's not in the Bush Rose Garden speech, it's not even in UN 181, the original partition resolution -- it's part of the Palestinian discourse," said the US analyst.