Interim initiatives and the refugee issue

Posted: July 21, 2010 by Rex Brynen in peace process

Whether or not Israel and the Palestinians continue with the current proximity talks or move on to direct negotiations, it is clear that there is not likely to be any substantive progress any time soon on permanent status issues. Indeed, I’m a pessimist about permanent status talks at all, under the current circumstances: Israel’s government is simply too hardline, the Palestinians are too divided, and the international community (which means, most importantly, the US) have yet to articulate any clear strategy as to how to break the logjam. Given the political sensitivity of the refugee problem, and Israel’s likely retreat from the positions it took on the issue in 2000-01 (Stockholm/Camp David/Clinton Parameters/Taba) and 2007-08 (Annapolis), a breakthrough on refugees seems particularly unlikely.

Given the current impasse, it is not unusual to hear various ideas put forward for possible interim or confidence-building measures on the refugee issue, measures that could be undertaken prior to comprehensive peace agreement between the parties. These would have the objective of ameliorating tensions, differences, and sensitivities in such a way as to address both the real needs of the refugee population, while at the same time improving the climate for any future negotiations.

But how viable are these? Below, I’ve collected below some of the ideas I’ve heard in recent years, and offered some of my own thoughts on how promising such initiatives might be. As you’ll see, most run counter to the embedded interest that both sides (and others) have in addressing the refugee issue as a final, rather than preliminary, part of the peace process. As many have argued, the substantive compromises that Palestinians might have to make on internationally-recognized refugee rights are most easily sold as part of a package that is counterweighed by gains, notably the full achievement of an independent state. For the Israelis, it has been a priority that a refugee deal constitute a final and definitive end to the conflict, a position that is incompatible with an incremental approach to the issue. Among host countries, Jordan too would not wish to be seen on compromising on refugee rights absent a comprehensive resolution of the refugee issue; Syria would condition its cooperation on the progress of any Israeli-Syrian track; and Lebanon would have its fears of tawteen (naturalization) only heightened further if interim measures failed to address issues of return and repatriation.

  1. Financial compensation for refugees in advance of a comprehensive deal. The payment of compensation would undoubtedly have substantial positive effects on development within the Palestinian territories, acting as a stimulus to spending and investment and expanding the fiscal base of the PA. Its economic effects in host countries would also be very positive. The issue of compensation, however, has always been a delicate one for Palestinians: while it is viewed as appropriate given Israeli seizure of all refugee properties as well as other damages done, there has also been concern that compensation is intended as an alternative, rather than a complement, to the “right of return.” Decoupling these two issues by dealing with compensation first would heighten these fears.

    It is far from clear that the two sides could easily reach agreement on the magnitude of compensation payments, and it might be especially difficult to generate the required amount of resources in the absence of a full peace deal. At the time of the Taba negotiations Israel considered a contribution of approximately $3 billion, with any additional resources to come from the international community. Palestinian claims, on the other hand, usually come in the $100-200 billion range. These differences reflect very different assumptions about what is compensated, valuation, inflation, and imputed rates of return since 1948. Host countries also have substantial claims to compensation that they wish to have addressed, and might be less than supportive if this were not done. Compensating Palestinian refugees in advance of a deal would also risk become enmeshed in the claims of Jews from Arab countries. Having encouraged the latter issue, an Israeli government might find it too much of a political constraint to move forward —or, for that matter, a convenient political pretext not to. In turn, it is difficult to imagine Arab governments addressing Jewish claims in the absence of major progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

  2. Third country resettlement. This too is a sensitive issue on the Palestinian side: while individual Palestinians would certainly welcome immigration opportunities, a high-profile resettlement scheme would also be painted by critics as an effort to “liquidate the rights of the refugees.” Furthermore, it seems extremely unlikely that, in the post-9/11 era, Western and other countries would generate the sorts of resettlement opportunities that would make a demographic dent on a population of 4.7 million refugees (and descendants) that is growing at a rate of more than 100,000 per year.
  3. Non-resident Palestinian citizenship. This is largely irrelevant to most refugees in Jordan who (with the exception of those from Gaza and a few others) enjoy Jordanian citizenship. Indeed, it might pose a threat: Jordan has been a vehement opponent of dual citizenship, and might strip any Palestinians who took up the offer of their rights in Jordan.In Syria, where refugees are treated as legal equivalents to Syrian citizens in most respect, it would also have little effect, unless access to Palestinian passports substantially facilitated their travel. It would be valuable in Lebanon, where it might help to alleviate Lebanese concerns about tawteen. Indeed, the issue has already been raised by PLO officials with their Lebanese counterparts in recent months. The reaction of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, however, has been a cynical one: at best such a move is seen as having little real impact on their daily lives, and at worst peace process opponents have tried to paint it as an international conspiracy. As in Syria, an important issue would be whether access to Palestinian passports would significant enhance the international mobility for refugees currently dependent on refugee travel documents.
  4. Reactivating the multilateral Refugee Working Group. The RWG, established one of the various for a established as part of the multilateral track of the peace process in 1992, held periodic meetings under a Canadian “gavel” until 1995, and was largely moribund after 1997. Reactivation (as well as other multilateral working groups) has sometimes been suggested as a way of providing visible momentum to the peace process, as well as expanding Israel’s dialogue with its neighbours. Reactivation of the multilaterals was called for, for example, in the second phase of the 2003 “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres raised the issue of the RWG with Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon during a bilateral meeting in October 2009.

    It is important to recognize, however, that little of value ever happened in the RWG, which consumed considerable diplomatic energy with strikingly little substantive output. Indeed, most of the best work done under RWG auspices was done after the group stopped meeting, when participants began to focus their efforts on less formal meetings, policy and dialogue projects.

Outside of the ideas above, there are a few other initiatives that might be pursued which might have positive effects on both the refugee issue and broader peace process:

  1. Implementation of prior commitments regarding 1967 “displaced persons.” Both the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (Article 12) and the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords (Part A, Section E) include specific commitments by Israel to “decide by agreement [with the Palestinians, Jordan, and Egypt] on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, together with necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder.”  In practice, none of those displaced from the Palestinian territories in 1967 (about 300,000 persons, over half of them also 1948 refugees) were ever been permitted to return to the West Bank or Gaza under this provision. Israel stalled on the issue through 1995-97, talks halted during the first Netanyahu government, and the issue was folded into permanent status negotiations after 2000.

    Permitting the return of 1967 displaced persons to the West Bank would have several advantages. It would represent implementation of a previous agreed process. It would signal a marked departure from past Israeli practice, and strengthen the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. It would reinforce the notion of eventual Palestinian statehood. It would also enable the PA to develop its capacity to absorb returnees from the diaspora, thereby supporting institution-building while generating greater confidence that it could handle the much larger flows associated with an eventual resolution of the conflict.

    There would undoubtedly be Israeli objections, however. First, it would have concerns that some returnees could pose a security threat. Second, it might fear that a wave of returnees could overwhelm and destabilize the fragile West Bank economy. The latter is easily addressed by making such a scheme voluntary, since it seems unlikely that large numbers displaced persons would leave relative economic integration in Jordan for a West Bank that offered that featured insufficient employment, housing, or investment opportunities. As to the first, tripartite security cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and the PA could minimize the risks, and might indeed provide another opportunity to demonstrate the growing ability of the Palestinian security forces to address hostile challenges.

    (A rather different proposal for Israeli to start allowing the repatriation of 1948 refugees to the Palestinian territories has been floated by the former deputy director of the Israeli National Security Council, Chuck Freilich, in his article  “Toolbox: The Right Return,” The American Interest, September-October 2008. I suspect that, on the Palestinian side, this would be seen as an effort to “liquidate the right of return.”)

  2. Staking out international principles. The international community has generally failed to stake out any clear principles for resolving the refugee issue. Partly this due to the oft-stated desire not to impinge on the parties’ negotiation of the issues. Even more so it has been due to an unwillingness to antagonize the local parties. In failing to do so, however, the international community has facilitated those at either end of the spectrum who advance unrealistic solutions, whether they be a full right of return for every refugee, restitution of actual properties seized by Israel, unwillingness to consider any refugee return or moral acknowledgement, or promoting the dissolution of UNRWA and the permanent resettlement of all refugees in their current place of residence.

    The track record of past negotiations suggests that staking out principles can be quite helpful. It encourages the parties to focus on the center ground, and acclimatizes their respective publics to what might realistically emerge out of negotiations. The progress made in the Taba negotiations of January 2001, for example, was only possible because of the clarity provided by the Clinton Parameters of December 2000. Today, those principles would likely be similar to those of the Clinton Parameters, Taba, Geneva Initiative, and the Annapolis round of negotiations, namely the return of a limited but symbolic number of refugees to Israel, and a full right of repatriation for all Palestinians to the Palestinian state; financial compensation to the refugees for properties lost in Israel (primarily funded by Israel, possibly with some international contribution); moral acknowledgement of the refugee’s plight, and Israel’s role in it; some reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the Arab Peace Initiative as legitimizing the agreement; support for the development and transformation of refugee communities in Palestinian and the major host countries; a statement of definitive resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue; and acknowledgement of the claims of Jews from Arab countries, while making it clear that this is largely an issue for negotiations between Israel and the countries concerned.

  3. Supporting Lebanese-Palestinian reconciliation. The refugee population in Lebanon is the most vulnerable of any, suffering political and economic marginalization. Given widespread Lebanese opposition to the permanent settlement of the refugees in the country, they are also most likely to face “push” factors to leave in the wake of any refugee agreement. Under the previous Siniora government, there was some modest effort to improve both relations and conditions, including the establishment of the official Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee. Progress, however, was slow and uneven.More recently, the Hariri government and Parliament has been debating reforms that would give Palestinians better access to the labour market—although also allowing the refugees to own property seems to be slipping from the grasp of reformers as they struggle to build a sufficient political coalition. Encouragement of continued reform, as well as effort to improve the conditions of refugees (through UNRWA) could help to ameliorate tensions, reduce the risks of refugee radicalization, and improve the climate for any future peace agreement.
  4. Focused policy research. While it would not pay immediate dividends, there is considerable scope for the international community to undertake policy research on refugee compensation, repatriation, return, and resettlement that would help to facilitate both the negotiation and implementation of any eventual deal. In the past, Canada, UK, EU, and World Bank have undertaken such work, most notably that supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, and the World Bank’s (unpublished) multi-volume study of refugee absorption (2000-2003). This helped to identify possible approaches to negotiating issues (most notably compensation), cost out solutions, as well as provided a basis for the PA’s own repatriation and absorption planning.

    In the past the US generally failed to encourage such efforts, even though it valued the subsequent outputs. The World Bank’s ground-breaking project, for example, was only possible because the former chose to systematically under-inform the State Department as to the scope and sensitivity of its work. US officials have had difficult attending dialogue, second track, and policy research meetings in the past because of sensitivity in Washington about offending one of the regional parties. Israel too has often been unsupportive of such initiatives, while at the same time having very little policy capacity of its own on the issue. It would be quite useful, in fact, to find tactful ways of enhancing Israeli knowledge of the refugee issue in a way that is seen by Israeli officials as non-threatening. One caveat would be that such efforts need to contribute some real value-added. With so much MEPP-related research and track two dialogue over the years, there is a real risk of reinventing the wheel. Efforts also need to be grounded in what is achievable, politically and financially. There isn’t much point in designing unrealistic solutions that can only come to fruition through the magical intervention of the refugee tooth fairy (who is, in any case, is living in emergency accommodation at Nahr al-Barid refugee camp, waiting for her home to be rebuilt).

  5. Broadening dialogue on the issue. At repeatedly emphasized herein, resolution of the refugee issue has been hampered by dysfunctional public discourse on the issue. Within Israel, there is virtually no discussion of the topic among the public or foreign policy elites, and frequently little understanding of it as well.  On the Palestinian side, many refugees deeply distrust their leadership on the issue, and feel increasingly alienated from it. No leader has adequately addressed the likely compromises that a deal would entail, or prepared public opinion for such an eventuality. In both communities, therefore, a more frank, realistic, and fact-based discussion of the issue could prove helpful in the long-term. This is not something that the international community can do directly, above and beyond staking out international principles (as above). There is, however, a role for NGOs, academics, and other civil society actors to play in this regard—and the previous caveats about value-added and tooth fairies apply here too.
  6. Defending UNRWA. As briefly discussed above, UNRWA has come under substantial a largely unfounded criticism from groups accusing it from everything from supporting terrorism to artificially maintaining the refugee issue. Such attacks are problematic in two respects: first they encourage a deeply flawed understanding of the dynamics and importance of the refugee issue; second, they potentially sap the capacity of an organization that would likely play a leading role in facilitating and implementing any future refugee agreement. Not only does the Agency have more than 60 years experience dealing with refugees, but repeated public opinion polls show it to be far the most trusted institution in the Palestinian territories—far exceeding the approval ratings of NGOs, Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority. This isn’t to say it is perfect. However, if it weren’t for UNRWA, the refugee tooth fairy would lack even that emergency shelter at NBC, and would likely have joined Fateh al-Islam in protest.

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