Ben-Meir on the EU and the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: September 15, 2010 by Rex Brynen in EU, new items and opinion pieces, peace process

Recently, an article by Alon Ben-Meir on “A Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Issue” has been popping up in a number of places: on his own website, as an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, in the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. In it, he argues:

Of all the conflicting issues Israelis and Palestinians must resolve in the negotiations — including territorial claims, secure borders and the future of East Jerusalem — the Palestinian refugee problem in particular has the potential to stymie any pragmatic solution to the conflict. As Israelis and Palestinians renew direct talks, the European Union can and must begin to play a key role in helping the parties resolve this difficult and thorny issue.

Ben-Meir suggests that since Israel won’t accept a Palestinian right of return, the key elements of a refugee deal will necessarily focus on compensation and resettlement (in a Palestinian state, or third countries). Consequently, he proposes:

To this effect, the E.U. should support the P.A.’s creation of a new ministry tasked with resettling refugees and aiding in their transition. Such an initiative is fundamentally different than any previous attempts to address the Palestinian refugee issue, as it is premised on beginning to facilitate a resolution to the issue even before negotiations are concluded.

Moreover, such an approach would bolster Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s plan to establish a de facto state in the West Bank and Gaza by next year and many refugees can start returning to their homeland and investing in their new communities. For the 60% of refugees currently living in camps in the West Bank and Gaza, this will mean working with the P.A. in an organizational capacity to pull their families out of refugee status and into proper housing.

Clearly, resolving the Palestinian refugee problem will require a substantial amount of money. But above all, it will require political commitment to navigate through the thickets of a highly emotional issue in order to find a practical solution. There is no party better suited to lead this effort than the European Union, and no better time to start than now.

There are several non-controversial elements of Ben-Meir’s analysis. It has been widely recognized for some time that return to 1948 areas will not be the “durable solution” that most refugees are able to avail themselves of. It has been widely accepted that many refugees will choose to repatriate to a Palestinian state. It has been assumed that the European Union, which has generously financed both UNRWA and the PA over the years, will play an important role in supporting a deal. Indeed, previous Israeli and Palestinian negotiating texts have all assigned the EU and/or key European states a seat on whatever international commission might be established to oversee implementation of the refugee component of a future peace deal.

That being said, the piece seems rather under-informed as to both the past record on this issue, and regarding the obstacles confronting any refugee repatriation prior to an actual comprehensive permanent status agreement.

  1. The EU has supported a number of studies and second track meetings on precisely this issue, and continues to do so on an ongoing basis. These have been widely reported in the open source literature (for example, the Exeter University studies, the work of the Aix Group, and the long-running Chatham House’s Minster Lovell Process). If you are going to write about what the EU can do on refugee final status issues, first check and see what the EU has done on refugee final status issues. This is particularly true given all the discussion in Brussels and elsewhere over the past year or two regarding a possible EU “deposit” for the peace process (itself the subject of several workshops of academics and policy-makers).
  2. The World Bank and the PA have already done extensive policy research on refugee repatriation, running to many volumes of studies. While the studies were not publicly disseminated, there is  ample discussion of them in the scholarly material on the Palestinian refugee issue. There is certainly scope for updating this earlier work, but it isn’t as if the process needs to start from square one.
  3. Typically both the US and Israel strongly discourage Europe or anyone else in the international community from engaging in sensitive policy planning around the refugee issue at a time when permanent status negotiations are impending or ongoing. The Palestinians have been more open to such cooperation, but would certainly be wary about focusing on repatriation ahead of other refugee rights. Indeed, when PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad casually suggested in an April 2010 interview that “Of course, Palestinians would have the right to reside within the State of Palestine”—an evident truism, since it is impossible to imagine that Palestine would turn refugees away—he was attacked for having surrendered the right of return to 1948 areas. Hamas even suggested that he should be placed on trial for the statement. Given that, Ben-Meir’s suggestion that the PA establish a ministry for refugee absorption now would be politically risky in the extreme. Moreover, with a PA Ministry of Planning and a PLO Department of Refugee Affairs, do the Palestinians even need such an entity at this point?
  4. Ben-Meir’s suggestion that refugees could begin to return now, even prior to a peace agreement, seems a bit naive. Given that Israel has blocked implementation of Article XII of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (where by it committed to “decide by agreement 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”) for more than 17 years—and indeed, has stymied implementation of an identical article (Part A, Section E) in the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords for 32 years—what reason is there to expect that it would allow refugees to return now, prior to a peace deal?
  5. Will a Europe now battered by Eurozone financial crises, recession, and government austerity cuts be quite so generous as everyone has been assuming? When I was last in Brussels a number of EU and European officials flatly answered “no.”

Ben-Meir’s article is undoubtedly a well-intentioned effort to help foster a resolution of the refugee issue. That being said, however, it unintentionally highlights an important informational problem: while great masses of policy research have been done on the refugee issue, not everyone seems to be aware of it. Part of the problem can be that scholars don’t bother to check. A more serious problem arises, however, when governments themselves forget what they once knew due to foreign service rotations and retirements. In doing so, they risk reinventing the wheel, and failing to learn the lessons of past research and diplomatic efforts. With its much smaller number of specialists on Palestinian refugees—and a considerable tendency to wish the issue would just go away—Israeli officials are particularly vulnerable to this.

The peace process in general (and the refugee issue in particular) are difficult enough without these problems. Diplomats, negotiators, and technical advisors would do well to think about information management as an integral part of the negotiation process. Scholars and policy analysts would do well to think about dissemination strategies for their work, and the “shelf life” of their outputs.

And, of course, there’s always Google.

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