Last week I attended the latest meeting of the so-called “Minster Lovell Process” on the Palestinian refugee issue. These meetings, first organized under the aupices of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford in the mid-1990s and relaunched in May 2000 under the auspices of Chatham House, are usually held in idyllic surroundings of the small village of Minster Lovell, located northwest of Oxford on the southern edge of the Cotswolds. You’ll find a summary of recent and past phases of the project here. All of these meetings have taken place under the Chatham House Rule:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
The Minister Lovell Process is largely intended to promote a frank dialogue between Palestinians, Arab host countries, and the international community on the refugee issue. For that reason, there are usually no Israelis in attendance, for fear that the Arab-Israeli dynamics that might result would overwhelm the desired focus on the regional, Arab dimensions of the refugee issue. In some cases it would also be difficult to get everyone together in the same room, since Palestinian refugees from Syria or Lebanon can face real political and personal costs for any apparent collaboration with Israeli officials or scholars. The absence of Israelis, of course, also distorts the meetings in other ways, creating less opportunity for the articulation of Israeli concerns and perspectives. To address this, the project has variously held overlapping meetings (Israeli-Palestinian then Arab-Palestinian), held Israeli-Israeli meetings, or used other mechanisms. The June 2009 simulated refugee negotiations organized by Chatham House involved very senior former Israeli officials, whose presence then caused one former Arab diplomat to precipitously flee the meeting following the introductions.
The Minister Lovell meetings are intended to promote dialogue and networking well beyond the few days of the workshop. In several cases these connections have proven very useful in advancing specific policy initiatives, and some of the participants have gone on to very senior positions in their own governments. Minster Lovell discussions are undoubtedly facilitated by the setting, which includes a pub, a nearby ruined castle, a millstream, beautiful gardens, and green fields. Pretty much everyone who has ever been there would admit that it is as unlike a Palestinian refugee camp as one could possibly imagine.
Although the “Minister Lovell Process” is in large part about process, there is always a substantial focus for discussions too. This time there were three: an update on work being done on possible implementation mechanisms for any future agreement on the refugee issue; the implications for the refugee issue of the ongoing Palestinian initiative at the United Nations; and implications of the “Arab Spring” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- The session on implementation mechanisms was anchored by an excellent presentation on the issues involved, summarizing the work of a multi-year project undertaken by a major international organization. The most difficult and complicated elements of this concerned any future compensation refugees, with the presenters underscoring the difficulty of sorting out multi-generational claims (for example, what inheritance laws would apply if claimants live in multiple legal jurisdictions) as well the substantial risk that available resources fall far short of refugee expectations.
- With regard to the current UN bid, the meeting saw a reprise of earlier debate over whether a shift in UN representation from a PLO observer delegation to “Palestinian state” delegation would undermine the ability of the Palestinian side to advance refugee interests. This in turn led to broader discussion of issues of representation and legitimacy. Those close to the initiative put substantial weight on the domestic political ramifications of the initiative within the Palestinian territories, implicitly suggesting that the bid had as much to do with strengthening Mahmud Abbas in the midst of the Arab Spring as with a clearly thought-out Palestinian diplomatic strategy. There was also considerable discussion of the European response, with a number of participants feeling that Europe was working too hard to shelter the US from diplomatic fall-out and thereby passing up an opportunity to stake out an independent and constructive European position.
- Finally, with regard to the “Arab Spring,” some though that changes within the region would greatly buttress the Palestinian position, including on the refugee issue. I tend to see the effects as more mixed. In Jordan, the regime has implicitly used East Bank/Palestinian tensions as a wedge to weaken reformist pressures, which hardly works to the advantage of Palestinian refugee there. In Syria, many refugees have been sympathetic to the uprising, and Hamas has pointedly refused to endorse the beleaguered Ba’thist dictatorship. This presumably means that any post-Asad regime will not be hostile to the (predominately Sunni) refugee population. On the other hand, the current political tensions, violence, economic crisis, and repression has obvious negative effects on refugee households, and impedes UNRWA’s ability to deliver vital services.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable meeting in a very enjoyable setting. I think all of the participants, however, would quite gladly trade pleasant conversations in the Oxfordshire countryside for substantial progress in a meaningful peace process, and the achievement of a just, lasting, and mutually-acceptable resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
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NOTE: It would seem that a lot of the old Minster Lovell meeting reports are no longer available at the Chatham House website (and show up as broken links) because of a recent website migration. Hopefully they’ll fix this soon.