This past week I attended a meeting in Paphos, Cyprus on “Israeli Perspectives on the Palestinian Refugee Issue,” organized by Chatham House as part of its ongoing Minster Lovell process of policy-relevant workshops and discussions. At the two day workshop Israeli and international analysts explored Israeli perceptions, concerns, interests, and policy capacity as they relate to the refugee issue. As might be expected, the discussions were lively. The weather was also a good 30 degrees or more warmer than snowy Montréal.
In time, a summary of the event will (as usual) be published by Chatham House. In the meantime, however, I thought I would outline a few of my own take-aways from the session.
First, almost all of the Israeli participants stressed the need for greater discussion of the issue within Israel, among experts, officials, politicians, and the mass public alike. Most made the point that it was a topic Israel preferred to ignore, in part because of difficult normative questions it raises about past Israeli actions. Several (including former senior officials) also pointed to what they saw as limited understanding of the issue within government. This “knowledge gap” relates to both technical and factual issues on the one hand, and empathy on the other. There is certainly a need to plug more Israeli scholars and activists more fully in the policy research community on the refugee question.
Most of the participants at this meeting tended to the left or centre of the Israeli spectrum. While that was helpful in sustaining a constructive dialogue, it will also be necessary to widen the discussion. Indeed, those who took a harder line were a very useful reminder of the challenges that these issues face.
Second, recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” or “homeland of the Jewish people”—a relatively recent demand by Israeli negotiators, and a topic that came up at a previous meeting—once again emerged as important for many. Whether this demand will prove a hindrance to negotiations, or whether it can skillfully be incorporated into a package of statements addressing intangible needs, remains to be seen. (For my part, I continue to think that while “Jewish state” may prove particularly difficult for Palestinians to accept, “homeland of the Jewish people” is far more amenable to productive compromise.)
Third, we also spent time discussing the issue of Jews who were forcibly displaced from Arab countries. One longtime Israeli advocate for this issue argued the need to transform this from a zero-sum competition with Palestinian refugee claims (that is, somehow offsetting or cancelling them out) to a normative bridge of sorts, built on mutual recognition by both sides of the suffering and injustices experienced by the other. Doing so would involve not pitting both sets of victims against each other by compensating them from a common fund. It might involve Palestinian acknowledgement of, and reparations for, forcible displacements of Jews that took place within Palestinian areas in 1947-48. And it would likely involve Israeli acknowledgement that the appropriate source for most reparations would be the Arab regimes that were responsible, not the Palestinians or international community. It would be interesting to see if greater common ground might be built on this issue.
There was considerable discussion of Israeli public opinion. It was noted by those who had done research on the subject that there was more acceptance than commonly believed among the public that Israel shares some of the responsibility for the situation of Palestinian refugees. Polls indicated that Israelis are strongly opposed to Palestinian refugee return. Most Israeli Jews want some acknowledgement of the Jewish character of Israel in an agreement. There might also be reluctance to contribute very large amounts to refugee compensation. However, as several participants noted, public opinion can be moved to some degree by political leadership, especially in the context of a larger deal that offers a realistic prospect of peace.
Many participants expressed the hope that Palestinians would more clearly signal moderation on the refugee issue, and highlighted that mention of the right of return was seen as especially, even existentially, threatening by Israeli Jews. There was praise from several for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’ recent statements on the issue. There was also recognition that the political challenge from Hamas has made Fateh leaders reluctant to indicate a willingness to compromise.
I continue to feel that many Israelis continue to overestimate the degree of international resources that will be available to support a peace agreement, and especially with regard to refugee compensation. This issue of resource mobilization was also raised at a previous meeting in the Minster Lovell series.
On questions of residency, participants opposed all but limited or symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and several expressed a preference that this number be zero. Most supported that Palestinian state having full control over its own absorption policy, although a few expressed support for Israel having some veto over what Palestinians might repatriate to the Palestinian state for a limited transitional period. One participant voiced concerns (more widely shared in Israel as whole) that refugees repatriating to a Palestinian state could be a future security risk to Israel itself
Finally, there was considerable discussion as to whether past assumptions about resolving the refugee issue were still entirely relevant. I noted that the Syrian civil war has created strong “push” factors for hundreds of thousands of refugees, in contrast to an earlier era when Palestinians in Syria would be unlikely to face immediate pressure to repatriate following a peace agreement. Several participants also expressed doubt that a comprehensive peace deal was possible in the current era, arguing that a series of incremental and a transitional arrangements were more likely. Under such circumstances would the resolution of the refugee issue be postponed? Or were some sort of intermediate initiatives possible? It is a question that certainly needs further attention.