Chatham House: Israeli Perspectives on the Palestinian Refugee Issue

Posted: April 16, 2014 by Rex Brynen in conferences, Israel, Jews from Arab countries
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Chatham House Royal Institute of international affairs

Chatham House has released a summary report of its March 2014 workshop on “Israeli Perspectives on the Palestinian Refugee Issue”—it should be on the Chatham House website next week, but in the meantime here’s an advance copy.

This is a summary of discussions that took place during a one-and-a-half day workshop on Israeli Perspectives on the Refugee Issue, held on 5 and 6 March 2014 in Cyprus. The participants were Israeli and international experts on the Middle East Peace Process and the Palestinian refugee issue, acting in a personal capacity.

This workshop was intended to evaluate the status of the debate within Israel about Palestinian refugees, and various opinions were raised. Discussions focused not only on the opinions of the participants but also on their expertise of majority opinions and moods within Israel, which are summarized here.

The workshop took place at a time when the gap between Israelis and Palestinians on the refugee issue seems wider than ever, due in part to an apparent hardening of views within Israel over the past decade. Since the failure of the 2000–01 rounds of talks and the Second Intifada in 2000–05, Israeli concern have been particularly high over the demographic implications of any Palestinian refugee return. Additional issues implications for the Palestinian refugee issue have gained salience in the past decade, notably recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the forced displacement of Jewish people from Arab countries after 1948. Finally, both Israelis and international experts have expressed concern about the degree of policy expertise within Israel on the issue, and have noted the possible implications of this expertise gap for negotiations.

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’1, 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. The other workshops in the current series have addressed compensation and implementation mechanisms2 and the normative dimensions3 of the refugee issue.

Key findings

  • Israeli official knowledge on the Palestinian refugee issue lags behind the state of research and policy work, particularly on the technical dimensions of implementing the refugee component of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
  • Israeli public interest in the refugee issue also remains low. The issue is considered highly sensitive and any compromise on refugees and on right of return is closely linked in public discourse to the perceived threat of the destruction of Israel.
  • There is scope for expanded engagement with the Israeli public, experts, and opinion leaders on the issue. Polling and practical experience suggest that there might be opportunities to encourage a more nuanced approach to the topic within Israel in ways that would enhance the prospects for any eventual agreement.

My own account of the meeting has been previously posted to the PRRN blog.

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