Chatham House report on the normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: February 27, 2014 by Rex Brynen in 1948, peace process, refugee attitudes, right of return
Tags: ,

Chatham House has published a summary of their recent workshop on the normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue.

This is a summary of discussions that took place during a one-and-a-half day workshop on The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Normative Dimensions, held on 13 and 14 February 2014 in Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire. The participants in the exercise were regional and international experts on the Palestinian refugee issue, acting in a personal capacity.

The ‘normative dimensions’ of the refugee issue refer to the intangible needs of both parties and the moral acknowledgment of these needs, including the acknowledgment of ‘the human dignity and moral worth of victims’. Moral acknowledgment includes statements of apology, as well as recognition of rights and suffering. Participants were divided into working groups and asked to produce ‘formulations’, or multiple versions of language that would meet these needs, with the aim of encouraging new and innovative ideas. In constructing formulations, participants took note of the relevant language from previous negotiations and Track II exercises, including the ‘Beilin-Abu Mazin Talks’, Core Group Track II Exercise, Israeli Camp David Position, Clinton Parameters, Taba Talks, Arab Peace Initiative and the Geneva Accord, among others. The draft formulations ranged from complete paragraphs to one sentence or phrase, and the list can be found in the appendix.

Although this summary presents the needs and perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians in separate sections, throughout the discussions there were internal debates among both perspectives, as well as nuances in individual positions and contributions from international experts with a comparative perspective.

The workshop formed part of Chatham House’s on-going work on the regional dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue, known as the ‘Minster Lovell Process’2, which aims at an informal and comprehensive discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue, including the role of host countries and international actors. The workshop was hosted by the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme and was kindly funded by a grant from the UK Conflict Pool.

KEY FINDINGS

Some of the main findings of the workshop include:

  • Normative dimensions are central to resolving the refugee issue, although opinions vary on when these dimensions should be addressed. While some argue that negotiations must address intangible needs now to signal acknowledgement of the each party’s deepest needs and thereby facilitate agreement in other areas, others stress that the normative dimensions of the refugee issue should be deferred until after significant progress has been made on other elements of an agreement, such as territorial issues regarding borders and Jerusalem.
  • Two of the most pressing intangible needs around the refugee issue are the right of return and recognition of the Jewish character of Israel. On these two questions, mutual Israeli and Palestinian unwillingness to recognize the other’s need becomes a threat to the other’s feeling of legitimacy and security. Palestinians view the right of return as an internationally acknowledged moral and legal right that requires recognition, even if the actual number of refugees returning might be limited or even largely symbolic. Israelis view recognition of Israel’s Jewish character as a signal of regional acceptance of Israel’s founding and continuing legitimacy as a country for the Jewish people, as well as acknowledgment and respect for Jewish identity and Zionism.
  • Demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state could become an immediate and permanent obstacle to peace. However, recognition of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people could provide the necessary flexibility to meet the needs of both parties.
  • Other key normative dimensions of the refugee issue include acknowledgment and/or apology for 1948, recognition of Palestinian rights and dignity, an end of claims and the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

You’ll find my own take on the workshop here.

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