Though Israel has almost always objected to any implementation of the so-called "right of return" for Arab refugees, it's now more official than ever. A series of statements this week by the highest Israeli officials has made this clear. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Sunday that the PA must waive its demand for the right of an estimated 550,000-700,000 Arab refugees from 1948, and their three million descendants, to return to what is now Israel. Shalom said that the second stage of the Road Map plan - the creation of a PA state with provisional borders - is conditional on this waiving.

On Tuesday, in a traditional pre-Independence Day interview with public Israeli media, Prime Minister Sharon also said that the PA must drop its "right of return" demand. Sharon called it "a recipe for the destruction of Israel," as it would flood Israel with Arabs. Israel currently has a population of 6.7 million, including roughly 1.3 million Arabs.

PA leaders, for their part, say not only will they not give up this demand, but that even the United States is with them on this issue. Nabil Shaath, a senior PA negotiator, said that Washington has promised to raise the "right of return" in the permanent settlement negotiations. It is unclear if he was referring to the U.S. Road Map plan, or to a new reaction to the Israeli position. Abu Mazen, recently appointed by Yasser Arafat to serve as the PA's prime minister, said that for the PA to waive this demand is just "one of the Israeli dreams" and that he does not even "have the right" to drop it. Another top PA figure and confidante of Arafat, Saeb Erekat, said that Prime Minister Sharon is stalling and trying to kill the plan until the American election "in order to avoid implementation of any the provisions of the Road Map."

The Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut found that "the majority" of the Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled, and that 68% left without seeing an Israeli soldier. Joan Peters, who quotes the above on page 13 of her book From Time Immemorial, further writes that the official Arab position on this matter was not uniform:

"Some Arab leaders demanded the 'return' of the 'expelled' refugees to their former homes despite the evidence that Arab leaders had called upon Arabs to flee (such as President Truman's international Development Advisory Board Report, March 7, 1951, [which stated that] "Arab leaders summoned Arabs of Palestine to mass evacuation... as the documented facts reveal...").

"At the same time, Emile Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Command, called for the prevention of the refugees from 'return,' [as] it would serve as a first stop toward Arab recognition of the State of Israel...

"Arab activist Musa Alami [wrote in the Middle East Journal, October 1949] ,'How can people struggle for their nation, when most of them do not know the meaning of the word? ... The people are in great need of a "myth'" to fill their consciousness and imagination [and this "myth" will create] identity [and] self-respect.'"

In the Likud, the Forum for the Preservation of Likud Values, which orchestrated the party's vote against Prime Minister Sharon's declaration in favor of a PA state, is organizing an emergency discussion of the Road Map plan. Ministers, Deputy Minister, and MKs of the party have announced their plans to participate. Organizers say that the Road Map is even more dangerous than the original Oslo Accords, to which the Likud vociferously objected.