Direct negotiations and the refugee issue

Posted: September 2, 2010 by Rex Brynen in peace process

The formal start of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has already generated a great deal of media attention, and the attendant speculation about the prospects for success. Overall, I’m a pessimist. I do not think the current Israeli government will show the sort of flexibility necessary to reach a deal—on the contrary, I think Netanyahu is almost certain to renege on previous Israeli negotiating positions from the Annapolis (2007-08) and Camp David-to-Taba rounds (2000-01). I also think that Fateh/Hamas divisions will be a major stumbling-block on the Palestinian side. While Abbas may hope that he gets a deal that is so good (and enjoys such strong Arab backing) that he’s able to appeal “over the heads” of Hamas to win support from a large majority of Palestinians, I think it is very unlikely anyone will be offering him anything so attractive. This is, of course, quite apart from the roadblocks that will be thrown up by settlement construction, sporadic acts of violence, and other spoiler events.

If the negotiations are to succeed, they will eventually require the US to energetically inject its own ideas, much as the Clinton Administration did (briefly) in December 2000. The positive reading of current US policy is that they recognize the unlikelihood of progress, and that direct negotiations are a necessary precursor for Washington to later assume a more direct and assertive role when it becomes clear that the parties can’t, on their own, come to a deal. The negative reading is that the Obama Administration, like others before it, has caught peace processitis whereby keeping the parties talking becomes a substitute for actually moving things forward. Only time will tell. It is entirely possible too that the many smart folks who are part of the US team believe that they are pursuing the first strategy, but will get sucked into following the second path—especially as presidential reelection politics starts to rear its head late next year.

It wasn’t my intention to blog on the negotiations as a whole, however, but rather to comment briefly on how the Palestinian refugee issue fits into all of this. Elsewhere, I’ve summarized all of the negotiations and related refugee initiatives up to 2008, including many of the negotiating texts involved. What I’ll do now, however, is to suggest where the parties are likely to stand on the key issues.

Return, Repatriation, and Resettlement

A key Palestinian negotiating demand has always been for recognition of the refugees’ right of return to Israel—at which point the Palestinians are prepared to consider modalities that might limit exercise of the right in practice. For its part, Israel recognizes no such right, although in the past they have been prepared to consider the return of a limited number of refugees (25-40,000 at Taba, 5,000 in the Annapolis Round) under a humanitarian rubric such as “family reunification.” This time around I imagine that the Palestinians will once more start with the recognition/modalities compromise approach, and the Israeli initial position will be oppose all return whatsoever. The past US bridging position, evident in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters, was to use language that somehow invokes notions of rights (like references to UNGAR 194), but which really focuses almost entirely on refugee repatriation to a Palestinian state rather than return to Israel.

In the past, repatriation was seen as easy to achieve. However, this time the Netanyahu government may try to lay claim to the Jordan Valley (“an Israeli presence on the Palestinian state’s eastern border“), and with it control over access to the Palestinian state—thereby gaining the ability to prevent diaspora Palestinians from entering. There’s no chance whatsoever that any Palestinian negotiator will accept this, given past experience with Israeli mobility restrictions—and the US certainly shouldn’t allow Israel to back-slide to such a position.

Resettlement—in current host countries or elsewhere—will not likely be a primary focus of any talks, simply because it is outside the control of the two parties. In any event, most Palestinians in Jordan are already citizens, and Syria is likely to continue to treat its Palestinians well whatever happens in negotiations. Lebanon is always the more difficult challenge.


The Palestinian side will want some recognition of Israeli responsibility for the forced displacement of the refugees. Israel will not want to admit liability, nor does the Netanyahu government actually believe that Israel was responsible, blaming instead Arab opposition to the establishment of the Jewish state. It will take some serious diplomatic crafting to bridge this.

Israel is also insisting that the Palestinians “recognize Israel’s legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is difficult for the Palestinians to do, for two reasons. First, it seems to legitimize the ethnic cleansing of non-Jews from Israel in 1948. Second, such a formulation is overwhelmingly opposed by Palestinian citizens of Israel, who see it as confirming their second class status. Imagine, for example, if indigenous peoples in Canada and the US were asked to recognize these countries as “nation-states of the White people”… well, you can see the problem. This may be an area, however, where some clever wordcrafting in a preamble might satisfy Israel in a way that Palestinians can live with too.

While these issues may be intangible, they are no less important for that reason. For both sides they are linked to deeply-held and deeply-felt national narratives.


Compensation for refugees has been a major presumption of all refugee negotiations since 2000. However, a lot of potential devils lurk in the details. What mechanism should be used for compensation? Would it address just property losses, or other material and non-material losses? Israel will argue that Jews from Arab countries should be included, although as I’ve suggested before it is not clear why that issue would be part of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The compensation issue is a highly complex and technical one (on which the International Organization for Migration has done some very valuable work in recent years)—done wrong, it could well destabilize an agreement. There is also the issue of resource availability. Israel has, in the past, suggested it might contribute $3 billion or so to a refugee compensation fund. Palestinian claims can run in the range of $100-200 billion.

* * *

There are, of course, a great many dimensions to these issues that aren’t covered in a short blog post. The International Development Research Centre is finalizing a series of 20-30pp negotiation policy briefs on various aspects of the refugee issue (residency, absorption, compensation, UNRWA, the intangibles, regional context), which should be a quite useful resource for those wanting to know more about the various options and approaches that will be open to the negotiators.

  1. Andrew Robinson says:

    I agree with almost all of Rex’s comments, the main uncertainties will be a) the extent of domestic political latitude in the USA for the Obama administration to eventually, (when is clear the direct negotiations are going nowhere) push forward strongly enough proposals which will meet strong opposition and b) if this happens the question of how the reception of these proposals domestically in Israel will be managed.

  2. First I want to state that your outline of the issue is concise and your credibility is backed by the sources you cite. Refugees are the most complicated issue Palestinian-Israeli talks have to deal with since as you mentioned most of the situation lies outside both sides’ influence and as far as monetary compensation goes, there is a finite amount of money in the world.

    That said I want to chime in on the refugee situation from a personal perspective. The political environment in Lebanon is openly against naturalizing Palestinians but in politics there are two truths, one stated and one fated. While the Lebanese Christians heavily oppose naturalization that will increase Sunni Muslim numbers, Muslim parties don’t seem to bother as it will increase the numbers of one group (Sunnis) but not heavily influence the numbers of the other (Shiites). Christian Palestinians like myself are overlooked in the process because of our lesser numbers in the country. Most of my close relatives live abroad and the ones that live here have bread winners working abroad. The lacking socioeconomic conditions that Palestinians have faced consequentially weakened our stance as a whole and the choice of accepting or refusing naturalization is not ours to make anymore. Coupling that with the continuous calls to oppose naturalization by everyone who wants TV time, we end up facing a precipitation of social discrimination irrespective of political outcomes.

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