Now, the “Israel Papers”

Posted: April 15, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Bahrain, Israel, peace process, US

Haaretz has recently obtained a substantial number of US diplomatic reports that have been leaked to Wikileaks, but apparently have not yet published by the latter. To date these haven’t revealed anything terribly surprising, other than underscoring the propensity of folks to say things behind closed doors to diplomats in a way they wouldn’t say openly.

One example of this is a March 2007 suggestion by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa that Israel resolve the Palestinian refugee issue by offering the right of return to first-generation refugees only—that is, the rapidly diminishing group of refugees in their 60s and 70s who were originally born within what is now Israel. According to the piece by Yossi Melman in Haaretz:

In that cable, the U.S. ambassador there, William Monroe, wrote that Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, proposed that Israel absorb Palestinian refugees born in “present-day Israel.” The cable says: “Israel, he suggested, could offer to allow the remaining 1948 refugees who were born in present-day Israel to return to it, while not permitting subsequent generations to do so. If Israeli settlements turned over to a Palestinian government were in good condition, they could be used to house returned refugees.”

Most Israelis would find this proposal delusional and ridiculous. Nonetheless, should we pause and reflect, we might decide that it has some merit, that perhaps absorbing elderly Palestinians without their descendants would allow them to fulfill “the Jewish dream,” a dream of being buried in the Holy Land, and would be an acceptable price to pay for the achievement of a viable peace.

The proposal underscores the extent to which the private position of many Arab states on the refugee issue is often somewhat different from public rhetoric that seems to embrace an unrestricted right of return.

Haaretz’s reporting, however, also highlights something else: the lack of knowledge in Israel about the refugee issue itself. In fact, the Israeli negotiating team briefly and informally suggested the return of first generation refugees during the peace negotiations at Taba in January 2001. The Palestinian side was not interested, arguing against it on grounds of both principle (namely, that all refugees had a right of return) and practicality (that it was inappropriate to tear elderly refugees away from their children and family support networks in this way).

  1. Terry Rempel says:

    Danny Rabinowitz addressed this a few years back and recently returned to the issue in a revised format in Critical Inquiry, “The Right to Refuse: Abject Theory and the Return of Palestinian Refugees”, vol. 36, no. 3 (2010), 494-516.

    In addition to the private/public discourse, the proposal also underscores the extent to which private thinking, often seen to reflect more pragmatic and less principled considerations, is generally divorced from thinking within the refugee community itself, noting, of course, that the “community” is by no means heterogeneous.

    While much work has been done on mapping out the contents of an agreement, perhaps less, as you suggest, on the Israeli side, it appears that much remains to be done on the issue of how to reach an agreement on the refugees that has wide legitimacy among all stakeholders.

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