On the sidelines of the recent Conference on Displacement and Reconciliation at Saint Paul University, a colleague and I (we’ll call her only “Roula X”) had a spirited discussion regarding the relationship between Palestinian negotiating strategy and the right of return. It raised a number of important issues, so I thought I would throw it open for broader discussion on the PRRN blog.
First, let’s start with a (admittedly-imperfect) characterization of positions regarding the refugee issue. In general, a rough continuum of seven such positions can be discerned:
- Palestinian refugees were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and an absolute right of return, and that right is achievable. Minimal acceptable agreement: full right of return to 1948 areas.
- Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and an absolute right of return. That right is not achievable now, but might be achievable later, and hence needs to be preserved. Minimal acceptable agreement: full right of return to 1948 areas, or transitional agreement that preserves the ability to continue to advance claims.
- Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and a right of return, but that right is unlikely to be fully achievable. In order to gain partial rights, and in order to gain leverage in negotiations, there should be no public compromise on the issue now, even if it must be compromised later. Minimal acceptable agreement: Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility and symbolic recognition right of return, coupled with modalities that sharply limit actual return.
- Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and a full or partial rights of return, but those rights are unlikely to be fully achievable. Demanding an unachievable right is misleading the refugees and/or counterproductive as a negotiating position. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility and/or refugee grievances, coupled with limited/symbolic return.
- Palestinians were forcibly displaced, and have legitimate grievances. They also have rights of return but they are somewhat ambiguous and have weakened over time. Moreover, their rights are unlikely to be fully achievable. Demanding an unachievable right is misleading the refugees and/or counterproductive as a negotiating position. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility and/or refugee grievances, coupled with limited/symbolic return.
- Some Palestinians were forcibly displaced, and have many legitimate grievances, but little or no right of return to Israel proper. They may or do have rights to repatriate to a Palestinian state. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of refugee suffering, coupled with limited/symbolic return. End of Palestinian claims.
- Palestinians were not forcibly displaced, have few or no legitimate grievances, and no rights of return to Israel, or possibly anywhere in historical Palestine. Minimal acceptable agreement: no acknowledgement or return. End of Palestinian claims.
Palestinian public and elite opinion generally runs the gamut from positions #1 to #3, although a few have advocated #4. While the PLO’s public rhetorical position tends to be #1, in practice its negotiating positing (at Camp David in 2000, at Taba in 2001, and in the Annapolis round in 2007-08) has generally been that of #3.
The position of most Arab countries has been similar to the PLO negotiating position in public (#1) and private (#3). The position of the international community has ranged somewhere between #4 and #6. The US has never really articulated its own position on the issue, but if it did so I suspect it would be fairly close to #6. The Europeans tend to be all over the place, varying across countries and even officials. Many would privately articulate position #5.
The Israeli public and elite position runs from #6 to #7 (although there are a few individuals, academics, and NGOs who take a slightly different position). The Israel government adopted position #6 at Taba and the Annapolis round. The Netanyahu government takes position #7.
One of the more interesting gradations in this spectrum—and the one that sparked this discussion—was the differences between positions #3 and #4. Both positions regard Palestinian refugees as having been forcibly displaced, in what both would regard as acts of ethnic cleansing. Both believe that the refugees have a range of rights, including rights of return. Both positions, however, do not believe that substantial numbers of refugees will be able to return to 1948 areas in any likely agreement. Rather, an agreement is likely to include some recognition of responsibility, some symbolic return, rights of repatriation to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and reparations/compensation for refugees.
Where they differ, however, is on the issue of at what point the Palestinian side should compromise on their demands on full implementation of the right.
- Position #3 argues that it would be both morally inappropriate and poor negotiating tactics to concede large-scale refugee return at the outset of the process. Rather, one should start from the maximalist position in order to secure Israeli concessions, and to assure maximal acknowledgement of refugee rights even if they can’t be implemented. After all, anyone who has bargained knows that you start high, and make concessions from there.
- Position #3 also holds that compromises on the refugee issue will only be palatable to Palestinians in the context of a broader package deal that includes the attainment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Consequently, it would be politically unwise for Palestinian negotiators to publicly signal too much flexibility early in the negotiations, since doing so will only serve to generate refugee dissatisfaction and create opportunities for rival groups to mobilize public opposition to the negotiating process.
- Finally, Position #3 is also often based on the implicit view that as the victims of a historic wrong, it would be inappropriate for the Palestinians to offer too much compromise too soon. Rather, Palestinian flexibility is something that Israel can encourage by acknowledging its own responsibility for the refugee issue. It is not the Palestinians’ responsibility to play the role of psychotherapist to Israel’s collective denials and repressed memories.
- Position #4, by contrast, rejects the notion that by starting with a maximalist position on return the Palestinian negotiation position is enhanced. Rather, it is likely to be understood by Israeli negotiators either as a non-credible rhetorical position, and/or as an indication of bad faith. Indeed, to the extent that the right of return is seen as a back-door mechanism for Palestinian conquest of Israel, it might even be seen as casting doubt on the Palestinians’ commitment to a two state solution.
- Position #4 also argues that Position #3 under estimates the importance of shifting Israeli opinion on the issue as a way of influencing Israeli negotiating behaviour and expanding the scope of the possible within negotiations.
- While recognizing the enormous sensitivity of the issue, Position #4 argues that the Palestinian leadership is morally bound to be honest with their people as to what can, and cannot, be achieved in negotiations. It suggests that refugees are more realistic than given credit for, and that inevitable compromises on the refugee issue can be honestly framed as part the refugees’ collective contribution to the achievement of Palestinian liberation and self-determination.
- Finally, Position #4 suggests that while the Palestinians were undoubtedly subject to forced displacement and ethnic cleansing, it remains an unavoidable reality that Israelis are deeply wedded to their own narrative of victimhood. Consequently, leading Israel to acknowledgement of their responsibility for their issue won’t come from waiting for them see the light, but rather by engaging them in a process of mutual compromise whereby their sense of threat is diminished and uncritical attachment to national mythology is lessened.