A simple congressional request for the United States to distinguish between Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and millions of their descendants poses a high-stakes diplomatic and political challenge for President Barack Obama.
The State Department dislikes the idea, arguing that it would force the U.S. to prejudge one of the final so-called status issues of Mideast peace negotiations _ refugees _ that both Democrats and Republicans say Israel and the Palestinians should resolve in the now stalled two-state talks. State Department spokesman Mark Toner insisted Wednesday that the fate of refugees "needs to be worked out between the parties."
Jordan opposes it, as it wonders who will care for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees within its borders if the definition changes.
Whatever step the Obama administration takes in an election year is certain to resonate as Republicans and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney persist in questioning the president's commitment to Israel.
Ignoring administration objections, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last Thursday to ask the secretary of state to report to the panel within a year on the number of people who have received assistance from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and "whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and who are descendants."
The provision was a modified version of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. It centers on the contentious issue of who is a Palestinian refugee _ just those were displaced 64 years ago by the 1948 fighting, or their descendants as well _ and their "right of return" to where they left.
The U.N. agency defines a Palestine refugee as any individual whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict."
Refugees also are any descendants of fathers who meet that definition.
The U.N. agency counted 860,000 individuals in 1951. Those registered refugees and their descendants now total 5 million living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. Those who favor a distinction between the two argue that more than a half-century later, there are only 30,000 original refugees left.
The U.N. agency, which was established in 1949, provides health services, education and other assistance to these refugees, including 1.4 million spread out at 58 camps. Funds come from the United States, the largest donor with contributions of about $250 million a year, and other countries such as Britain, Norway and Sweden.
Since 1949, the United States has supported the U.N. agency at a cost of about $4.4 billion. The agency also has assisted refugees displaced by the 1967 Six-Day War.
For years, Israel was content with the U.N. agency caring for the refugees and steered clear of congressional efforts to cut funds for the organization, said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Their concern is if UNRWA didn't exist, then they would be left holding the bag and would be required to provide services to millions of destitute Palestinians," Schanzer said in an interview.
In recent months, however, Knesset member Einat Wilf has talked of restructuring UNRWA and addressing the refugee issue.
"There's a sense with the peace process really flat-lining right now, it's not going to get tackled at the negotiating table," Schanzer said. "The sense among the Israelis is maybe this is the time to do it."
Kirk and his staff acted on that signal, pushing an amendment in the Senate committee that asked which refugees lived in the West Bank and Gaza and which ones lived elsewhere.
The senator is still recovering from a stroke suffered in January and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced the amendment for him.
Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides wrote the committee to oppose the amendment, saying the refugee issue "strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies." Nides said forcing the United States to take a position on permanent status issues could undermine Mideast peace efforts and have a destabilizing impact on key allies, such as Jordan, with its significant Palestinian refugee population.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called it provocative and argued it would undercut U.S. credibility.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., spoke out in favor of Kirk's amendment. After some discussion, Leahy produced a revised version that the committee approved by voice vote.
With Congress likely to approve a catchall spending bill including the $52 billion measure for foreign operations, the question is whether the administration will challenge the provision and push to have it changed.
Toner said Wednesday he had not seen the final language of the Kirk amendment.
Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said the measure sends the wrong message _ to Arab allies, to hard-liners in the region, to the U.N. agency and to the Palestinians.
It says "there are people in the United States who are just hostile to the Palestinians. This is so mean-spirited," Ibish said. "It says, `Dear Palestinians, including the innocent refugee children, we don't like you and we don't want to continue to help you.'"
In a time of budget cuts and deep reductions in foreign aid, proponents and opponents see the measure as the first step to reducing the U.S. commitment to the U.N. agency.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.