Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process: Evaluating the Impasse

Posted: October 19, 2012 by Rex Brynen in conferences
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A few weeks ago I participated in a meeting on  “Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process: Evaluating the Impasse” convened by the Royal Institute of International affairs (Chatham House) as part of their longstanding Minster Lovell process. The meeting drew more than two dozen participants, drawn from academia, government, NGOs, and international organizations.

As usual, Minster Lovell was lovely.

Also as usual, the discussion was informal, well-informed, and free ranging. Despite the title of the conference, I argued that the “peace process” was effectively defunct for the near and medium term—indeed, continued discussion of it as if it were a living viable thing reminds me of nothing quite so much as the “Dead Parrot” sketch from Monty Python.

 Simply put, the current Israeli government is not interested in any reasonable compromise with the Palestinians, and is generally comfortable with the status quo of continued occupation. Mahmud is more interested in reasonable compromise, but he is also a weak leader, and the continued Fateh vs Hamas divisions seriously compromise the ability of the Palestinians to do anything.

A few others (but not many) at the meeting were a little more optimistic, hoping that were President Obama elected to a second term that the US might launch a bold new peace initiative. With Knesset elections now pending too, it is also possible that the Israeli political spectrum might shift in ways that make progress towards peace more likely. However, even if Obama wins reelection in November I’m not very optimistic of major changes in US policy. I think a substantial political shift in Israel is even less likely.  I see few prospects for substantial Palestinian reconciliation.  As I have argued before, I also don’t think that the “Arab Spring” and other developments in the region make progress more likely.

In short, I think we’re in for a decade or more of dysfunctional stalemate. What then are the implications for the refugees, the refugee issue, UNRWA, and host countries? What particular scenarios lay ahead?

Most immediately there is the challenge of an increasingly bloody Syrian civil war. While most Palestinian refugees in that country have tried to remain relatively neutral, they have become increasingly affected nonetheless. Refugee camps and districts have become the scene of regime security operations or fighting. Refugees may also be drawn in as more active participants. This obviously places a severe burden on UNRWA as it attempts to maintain its operation in Syria while dealing with those refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. In a post-Asad Syria I think Palestinians will likely once more enjoy the sort of positive treatment they have enjoyed under the current government, but this will be in the context of a war-ravaged country which will likely suffer from serious problems of economic reconstruction, insecurity and political instability.

Regarding Lebanon, there are again immediate challenges arising from the conflict in Syria, in particular the (so far, rather limited) flow of Palestinian refugees across the border. This could accelerate, of course, as fighting intensifies. While the Lebanese government has hardly been welcoming of refugee inflows, it has perhaps been less unwelcoming than one might have imagined. Unlike some, I don’t think that the conflict in Syria will tip Lebanon into full-scale civil conflict. However, I do think the risk will increase after the Syrian conflict is over, when a new government in Damascus attempts to strengthen its Lebanese Sunni allies against a Hizbullah that the Syrian opposition has grown to hate. Political rebalancing can be a messy thing.

There is also the risk, of course, that an Israel-Iran confrontation spreads to Lebanon, either because Hizbullah retaliates following an Israeli attack on Iran, or because Israel decides to preemptively attack Hizbullah as part of an attack on Iran. While Palestinian refugees were less affected during the last war in 2006 than many Lebanese population groups, their vulnerability could increase if Israeli military actions were more intense next time around (which they might well be).

The attitude of Jordan to Palestinians fleeing the conflict in Syria has been even more restrictive than Lebanon’s, mirroring its earlier exclusionary treatment of Palestinians who fled Iraq. As in Lebanon, this policy is rooted in domestic politics, in this case a fear among East Bankers of a Palestinian influx. However, I do think there is some room at the margins to influence Jordanian policy in slightly more favourable directions. The international community should offer some third country temporary protection or resettlement opportunities to Palestinians entering Jordan, thereby assuring Amman of a degree of onward movement. Western donors should pre-commit now to supporting refugee repatriation back to Syria when the conflict there is over. It should also extend other aid incentives so as to reward Amman if it moves in a more positive direction. (Much of this also applies to Lebanon too, it should be added.)

While the Syrian civil war presents the most immediate challenge to refugee communities, there are others.

The Palestinian Authority has recently faced substantial internal protest, arising from economic slowdown, the PA’s current fiscal crisis, and the moribund “peace process.” While I don’t think at present this portends an eventual “Palestinian Spring” that threatens Fateh’s hold on power in the West Bank, it is possible that the fiscal crisis could generate greater internal political instability. This has implications for refugees and for UNRWA, especially if it affects the provision of public services.

Regarding UNRWA, I think it is likely to face a more hostile fundraising environment for some years to come. Part of this will arise from the continued global economic recession, especially in the Eurozone crisis grows deeper. While UNRWA has made efforts to diversify its donor base, there are real limits to how much can be generated this way. The current anti-UNRWA advocacy campaign also makes UNRWA’s job more difficult, especially in the US.

One key question in this regard is whether the attitude of Israel to UNRWA is undergoing a change, as evidenced by comments from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in particular. Israel has never real had a clear policy on either refugees or on UNRWA. Some Israeli officials privately dismiss Ayalon’s campaign as a personal initiative, and it would appear that Israel didn’t really welcome Canada’s 2009 decision to end core funding for UNRWA. On the other hand, Israeli policy could well drift into an anti-UNRWA stance not because anyone has thought it through, but rather by default. That would make Agency fund-raising even more difficult, especially in the US.

No one at the meeting, by contrast, thought that the Israeli government’s current campaign to emphasize the claims of Jews who fled Arab countries would somehow weaken the Palestinian negotiating position on the refugee issue. Indeed, several argued that it could even work to the Palestinians’ advantage.

One possible development that could both directly and indirectly impact refugees in the near future is a Palestinian bid to gain recognition by the United Nations General Assembly as a non-member state. Overall I think this would be a useful move by further strengthening the international consensus around a two-state solution, especially if it were linked to an explicit recognition of the 1967 borders (with minor territorial swaps) as the basis for any future peace agreement.

However, the move could bring with it major risks, notably moves by the US (and especially the US Congress) to cut support for both the PA and UN specialized agencies—including UNRWA. Unlike UNESCO, Palestine can’t “join” UNRWA, which perhaps reduces the risk. On the other hand, as an agency that exclusively caters to Palestinians, UNRWA might be deliberately targeted.

Israel might also suspend tax transfers to the PA, dramatically worsening its fiscal crisis. While I don’t think any US Administration or Israel would wish to push the PA to the point of fiscal and political collapse, it is not impossible that matters could escalate beyond initial intentions. If a newly UN-recognized state of Palestine moves to join the International Criminal Court and raises the possibility of ICC indictments of Israeli officials for activities in the occupied territories, for example, the Israeli political backlash, coupled with US Congressional overreaction, could potentially reach a point which imperils basic PA service delivery and, in turn, the survival of the PA itself (ironically, to Hamas’ benefit).

What are the implications of this for researchers? Most people at the meeting suggested that research which focuses on how an eventual refugee agreement might be designed and implemented remains useful, even with near- and medium-term prospects for political progress so dark—after all, such research can always be dusted off if and when the political context improves. However, it also would be increasingly useful to examine how key actors might best respond to the emerging challenges that lie ahead, in a practical way that addresses the social, economic, and security needs of the refugee population.

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