Later this year, two new books (coedited by myself and Roula el-Rifai) will be published by Pluto Press on the Palestinian refugee issue. Compensation to Palestinian Refugees and the Search for Palestinian-Israeli Peace will examine the legal, political, and technical challenges of any future system of reparations to refugees for property and other losses suffered due to forced displacement during the conflict. The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for Resolution reviews a range of possible policy options for all sides in any future refugee negotiations. The emphasis here is on exploring the costs and benefits of different approaches, mechanisms, trade-offs, and linkages, rather than narrowly describing a single approach. The two volumes draw upon the contributions of a broad range of Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, and international experts.
In part, the studies emerge from more than a decade of past, Canadian-supported, semi-official workshops, research, and “track two” meetings on the refugee issue, sometimes known as the “Ottawa process.” It would be nice, of course, if the books were being released now because we stand on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough in the search for Middle East peace. We aren’t there, of course—on the contrary, prospects for the onset (let alone conclusion) of political negotiations on the refugee issue are very grim at the moment. Ironically, it is because of this that it becomes all the more important to document and distribute prior policy-relevant research in a way that assures its longer term “shelf life.” This is especially true given the remarkable institutional ability of actors to forget what they once knew, and to have to relearn the history of past negotiations whenever a glimmer of diplomatic hope returns.
If one believes—as we do—that the refugee issue will inevitably be a key component of any conceivable future peace negotiations, these analyses are of enduring value. Indeed, the argument can be made that diplomatic hiatus often provides a space for creative thinking and technical analysis that could prove useful in the future. Certainly one of the lessons of the 2008 Chatham House refugee negotiation simulation was that many technical aspects of a refugee agreement and mechanism are still quite poorly understood:
More work is needed on implementation issues – this would be a worthy area for further meetings and discussions. Several participants noted that the simulation itself had been one of the very few occasions on which the international community had engaged in any discussion as to how an agreement might be implemented. One long-time aid official commented, “It is rather a shame that after 17 years we still have these gaps – and in the meantime, we have failed the people on the ground.” The failure of knowledge management within foreign ministries and aid agencies was also highlighted as a serious obstacle to institutional learning and preparedness. One Israeli participant stated “I also came to the conclusion that we have overestimated the willingness and ability of the international community to implement the agreement.”
The search for just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians faces myriad challenges. We and our fellow contributors hope that the work in these two studies will help ease that path, however modestly, whenever serious and substantive negotiations are rejoined.