Jews from Arab countries and Palestinian refugee compensation

Posted: August 5, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Jews from Arab countries, peace process

As the Jerusalem Post recently reported, the government of Israel has established a a new office to collect and collate the property claims of Jews who left Arab countries in the 1940s, 1950s, and thereafter:

A new department set up by Ministry of Pensioners Affairs to manage the legal claims of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent who lost their property when they left countries throughout the region has begun collecting information.

The office will help identify, locate and seek compensation for the assets of the more than one million Jews who came to Israel from Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.

The initiative follows a law approved earlier this year by the Knesset requiring the compensation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran to be included in any peace negotiations.

“The Palestinians have been collecting evidence of their losses for many years,” said Yoni Itzhak, a spokesman for the Pensioners Affairs Ministry.

“So we are not waiting until there is a negotiation for a peace accord. We need to be prepared, so that if there are negotiations and the Palestinians say, ‘We are owed a few billion dollars,’ We will say, ‘OK, no problem,’ and be ready with a much higher figure of what we are owed.”

The ministry says that as of 2007 “the estimated value of Jewish property in Arab countries is 50 percent more than the value of the property of Palestinian refugees and is valued at billions of dollars.” The ministry did not provide specific figures.

I’ve always found it a bit curious that anyone would think that this approach would have any traction in negotiation with the Palestinians when the Palestinians weren’t responsible for the situation of Jews in other Arab countries. Don’t get me wrong: I think most Arab regimes and Arab populations often treated their own Jewish citizens with grave injustice, whether by encouraging violence against them, seizing properties, and/or failing to protect them from intimidation. I do think, in many cases, it constituted forced displacement. I think Arab unwillingness to address what happened is lamentable. Finally, I believe that legitimate claims for compensation can be made.

…But why would the Palestinians be expected to pay this, or somehow have it deducted from their own compensation claims against Israel? Israel, after all, has had a peace treaty with Egypt since 1979–and yet has failed make claims against Egypt for its treatment of Egyptian Jews. Similarly, it hasn’t made formal, legal claims against any other Arab country. Indeed, as Michael Fischbach has shown in his masterful book Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, successive Israeli governments resisted efforts to pursue justice for Jewish property claims because it wanted to “save” the issue to use as a bargaining chip in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The Palestinian response to this, however, is likely to be a combination of “yes, we agree with you that legitimate refugees should be compensated in full.. that’s what we’ve been claiming,” and “go take your bill to the Iraqis/Egyptians/Yemenis/etc… these specific claims have nothing to do with us. On the other hand, now that you’ve accepted the principle, here are our specific claims against you…”

In past permanent status negotiations the issue has been dealt with in various ways. At Camp David in July 2000, it was briefly suggested that it might be possible to pay both Palestinian and Jewish claims out of a single international fund. President Clinton later told Israeli TV that “the fund should compensate the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominately Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”

The problem in such an approach is that many international donors have already indicated that while they would be generous in support of a peace deal, they don’t envisage making contributions to a compensation fund, something that they see as the primary responsibility of Israel (in the case of Palestinian claims) or Arab countries (in the case of Jewish claims). As I’ve argued for some time now, there is likely to be a significant gap between Palestinian expectations of compensation, and the level of resources available from Israel or anyone else—a gap large enough to potentially destabilize any future agreement. Why then would you want to make this problem even more grave by enlarging the number of claimants? And why should the international community be expected to foot the bill so that Israel or Arab states can continue to enjoy refugee properties that they may have improperly seized?

It is revealing of how weak this linkage is that, in practice, neither the US nor Israel has seriously pursued the issue previous permanent status talks. Jews from Arab countries don’t get a single mention that I can find in Dennis Ross’ otherwise voluminous 815 page autobiographical account of the peace process. It is also not mentioned, or barely mentioned, in the autobiographical accounts by Israeli peace negotiators Gilead Sher, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and Yossi Beilin. The Clinton Parameters of December 2000 make no reference at all to the issue of Jewish claims—nor, indeed, does Israel’s own draft Framework Agreement on Permanent Status. By the time of the Taba negotiations in January 2001, both Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to put the issue aside. Indeed, the Israeli negotiating text of 22 January explicitly postponed the issue to other fora and a later date, rather than including it in the compensation regime under negotiation:

Former Jewish Refugees

15. Although the issue of compensation to former Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not part of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement, in recognition of their suffering and losses, the Parties pledge to cooperate in pursuing an equitable and just resolution to the issue.

In other words, not only does it make little logical sense to link contemporary Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Palestinian refugee compensation claims to the behaviour of Arab regimes six decades ago, but the historical negotiating record shows that Israel itself has already conceded that Jewish claims against Arab countries are not appropriately “part of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”

For further information: See the website of the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries, which is assisting the government of Israel with documenting claims, and the website of the advocacy group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. See also Michael Fischbach’s Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, as well as his account of non-governmental efforts by former Iraqi Jews to make claims for lost property in Iraq.

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