Archive for the ‘peace process’ Category

The Atlantic: Kerry’s Middle East peace plan

Posted: July 21, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Israel, peace process, US

The Atlantic this week has a lengthy and detailed piece by Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon on “The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble.” The article is very useful, although it does tend to focus more on the side-deals to keep the talks going rather than providing great insight into the substantive issues under negotiation.

It also contains a brief reference of where the US and Israel were on the refugee issue:

By late January, the Americans believed that their strategy of patient engagement with Netanyahu was finally paying off. After months of painstaking negotiations over every word in the framework, the prime minister had accepted once-unthinkable language. On refugees, the document would promise monetary compensation to Palestinians displaced in Israel’s War of Independence (and, separately, to Jews who left their homes in the Arab world). It also stated clearly that “the Palestinian refugee problem” would be solved within the new Palestinian state. But, in a groundbreaking departure from Israeli policy and his previous statements, Netanyahu agreed to a mechanism whereby Israelat its sole discretionwould admit some refugees on a humanitarian basis.

What is painted here as a major concession (“sovereign discretion”) was in fact part of the December 2000 Clinton Parameters, and indeed was also part of the Israeli negotiating position throughout 1999-2001 [1]. Compensation to Jews from Arab countries was first put on the table at the Camp David talks in July 2000.

In other words, what are being reported as a “groundbreaking departure” is 14 years old, even if Netanyahu himself only belatedly endorsed it. It is also significantly less flexible than the Israeli position in Taba in January 2001, where Israeli negotiators were prepared to offer concrete numbers for returning refugees.


[1] Gilead Sher, The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001 (London: Routledge, 2006).

Today’s Ha’aretz has a must-read piece by Barak Ravid on the 2013-14 US/Israel/Palestine negotiations, including a summary of the draft framework document prepared by the US. It also confirms previous reporting that Washington worked on this far more closely with Israel than the Palestinians in developing the position paper.

Given the importance of the article, I’ve reproduced it below in full.

The secret fruits of the peace talks, a future point of departure?
Some think the still-secret framework document produced by nine months of talks might contain the basis for a future American peace plan.
By Barak Ravid| 00:30 05.07.14

July 30, 2013 was another hot and humid summer day in Washington. That morning, a pair of Israelis and a pair of Palestinians sat opposite each other on olive-green sofas in the air-conditioned comfort of the Oval Office in the White House. On one sofa were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and attorney Isaac Molho, the prime minister’s envoy; on the other were the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and a top Fatah official, Mohammad Shtayyeh.

A day earlier, another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a final-status agreement had been launched in a modest ceremony and with little fanfare. It was one more attempt in a 20-year chain of dashed hopes, missed opportunities, unreached agreements and no end of frustration. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. special envoy for the negotiations, Martin Indyk, were on hand, playing the role of the latest American mediators to engage in a countdown to the inevitable crash.

Sitting in the brown leather chairs perpendicular to the Israelis and the Palestinians were President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They were searching for the right words that would imbue the negotiators with motivation and a sense of urgency, but at the same time would not generate unwarranted expectations about the chances for success. “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – what’s important is seriousness,” Obama said.

“Seriousness” was the keyword at that brief meeting. Kerry, Livni and Erekat uttered it several times. But one of the participants made a remark that was something of a Freudian slip. “This time it really will be serious,” he said, possibly sarcastically.

The cynicism that accompanied the talks, the lack of enthusiasm for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and, at the end of the allotted nine months, the resounding collapse of the process – whose consequences the parties are now feeling – led to the notion that, once again, the talks had not been serious. It was alleged that it had all been for nothing, that not a thing had happened, that the parties had just played for time and the chance to hurl mutual recriminations.

But this conclusion may not have done justice to all nine months of talks. Especially to the three months from December 2013 until March 2014, in which Kerry and Indyk held intensive talks with Israel and the Palestinians on the framework document for the negotiations. The idea was to set forth for the sides the principles for a solution of the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements and water.

Copies of that 10-page document now lie in safes at the State Department in Washington and in a few offices in Jerusalem. The number of people in Israel who have read the document in full can be counted on the fingers of one hand, maybe a hand and a half. All the American and Israeli sources who were interviewed for this article declined to show the document to Haaretz, because of its volatility and the apprehension that its publication would make both sides, but particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disavow the principles they had articulated in the negotiations.

Senior Israeli and American officials who were intimately involved in the talks say that even though the negotiations collapsed, the framework document remains relevant. The reason for this, according to all those involved, is that the document, though now in deep freeze, will be thawed out at some point before Obama leaves the White House and serve as a point of departure for future negotiations, or as the basis for an American peace plan that will be presented to the sides.

“The work on the document was not a waste of time,” says a senior Israeli official, adding, “I had very low expectations from the whole process, but I was favorably surprised by what happened at the end. It’s true that there is no agreement, but relative to the composition of the government coalition in Israel and the situation on the Palestinian side, we made quite a bit of progress.”

Recalculating the route

The goal that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators talked about in that White House meeting a year ago was nothing if not ambitious: A comprehensive and full final-status agreement within nine months. Once back home, Livni, Molho, Erekat and Shtayyeh began to hold meetings. All told, they met 25 times between August and December 2013.

Some of the meetings were held in Jerusalem, others in Jericho. Indyk, then the U.S. envoy, took part in some of them, while in others the Israelis and Palestinians faced off without mediators. But the talks did not produce a breakthrough. Both sides persisted in presenting their basic positions. Each spoke to himself, and no one really engaged in the kind of give-and-take that underlies genuine negotiations. The principal achievement of those months lay in the food served at the meetings, especially the dinners at Erekat’s home in Jericho, prepared by his wife, Naima. A senior Israeli official who took part in the talks related that already after a few meetings, the two sides began to understand that they had to recalculate the route. In other words, to abandon the goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement in favor of reaching a framework agreement that would demarcate the sector boundaries of the two-state solution.

The final decision to this effect was made in mid-November, when a wave of massive construction in the settlements following the second release of Palestinian prisoners led to the resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team and the suspension of direct talks.

In addition to changing the goal, Kerry and the American team also decided on a change of style that would involve a shift to “proximity talks” – indirect negotiations in which they would shuttle between the sides and try to bridge the gaps in an effort to formulate a framework document. Their aim was to bring about a quantum leap that would hurtle the sides from empty talks and entrenched positions to true negotiations in which they would try to strike a deal.

The framework document was not meant to be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but an American position paper, based on which the sides would be ready to resume the negotiations from a more advanced point. To help them politically, the Americans agreed to allow the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president to announce that they had reservations about certain clauses in the document. Netanyahu and Abbas would not detail their demurrers but made do with a statement that would be discussed in the negotiating room.

The Americans believed that the framework document would oblige the two leaders to make a series of tough decisions at a relatively early stage of the talks. Such decisions would completely change the atmosphere of the negotiations and the political reality on both sides, and induce the leaders to cross the Rubicon and move full-tilt toward an agreement.

In addition, the crisis that erupted at this point over the prisoner release and construction in the settlements showed Kerry that time was not on his side. Seeing the potential crisis of a third release of prisoners at the end of December, he wanted to move ahead as quickly as possible.

At the beginning of December, Kerry, who was already intensively and personally involved in the talks, ramped up his involvement even further. He and Indyk set in motion a round of marathon talks – though the major American effort was focused on talks with the Israeli side.

Senior Israeli and American officials related that this stage consisted of daily work. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of talks and discussions were held between the teams, often deep into the night. Tzipi Livni, who was at the forefront of these contacts, was indefatigable. If she found a door closed to her, she entered through a window. With great persistence she was able to get Netanyahu to budge on no few issues, in order to move toward the formulation of the framework paper.

Each and every issue was addressed: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements, Jewish state. On every issue the Israelis presented their position, the Americans set forth a counter-position, and together they tried to work out formulations to close the gaps.

But along with the work of the teams, a large portion of the negotiations was conducted directly between Netanyahu and Kerry. During this period, the secretary of state visited Israel several times for talks with the sides, but the bulk of the negotiations was carried out by means of almost daily video conferences with Netanyahu. On one occasion, Kerry came on for a talk from Indonesia, another time from China. Sometimes the talk lasted two hours, sometimes five.

Both Kerry and Netanyahu are devotees of words. Kerry, a lawyer by training, wanted to formulate everything himself, and Netanyahu wanted to see every word. For hour upon hour they sat opposite the camera and the plasma screen, and worked on the clauses of the document. Members of the Israeli negotiating team who were in the room handed Netanyahu notes with their suggestions for wording of the text.

Senior Israeli and American officials involved in the talks on the framework document attest that during those months of negotiations, and particularly in the three months of work on the framework agreement, Netanyahu softened his positions slowly but consistently, and showed seriousness and a readiness to make progress.

From conversations with members of the Israeli negotiating team, the following picture arises of the positions put forward by Netanyahu in his talks with Kerry and which appeared in the final draft of the document:

1. Borders

Netanyahu agreed for the first time to accept the principle that the negotiations will take place on the basis of the 1967 lines together with a territorial swap. The implication: readiness to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank in any peace agreement. However, Netanyahu refused to elaborate on whether he would agree to a one-for-one swap, as the Palestinians and Americans called for. In addition, he made this conditional on the document’s including a reference to his demand for Israel to be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people and on his being able to announce that he had reservations about the document without detailing them.

Even though Netanyahu ultimately agreed to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and a territorial exchange, he flatly refused to present a map or even to discuss the subject theoretically. In one of the meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian teams, Molho, the prime minister’s envoy, left the room for a few minutes. When he returned he found Erekat and Livni hunched over a map that had been unrolled on the table. Appalled, Molho demanded an explanation. Erekat chided him and said he was explaining something about a certain region on the map to Livni. Livni, for her part, seeing Molho’s worried look, tried to reassure him. “Treat it as science fiction,” she told him with a smile. But Molho, whom the White House dubbed “Dr. No” – after the villain in the first James Bond movie – was not amused. With abysmal seriousness he said to Erekat, “Just so you know that what is happening here does not represent the position of the prime minister.”

A minor anecdote, perhaps, but it reflects Netanyahu’s deep aversion to addressing the subject of borders. The prime minister displayed great cautiousness in this realm, even in discussions with the smallest forums of the Israeli negotiating team. A senior Israeli official who took part in all the consultations noted that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make. “Not even with the most intimate team did he peruse maps,” the official said.

2. Security

The Americans accepted most of Netanyahu’s security points and integrated them into the document. The clause on this issue states that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that there will be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan River as part of a special security regime to be established in that area. At the same time, the Americans left it to the two sides to negotiate the duration of the Israeli military presence. Netanyahu, for his part, softened his opposition to the presence of international forces in the West Bank. He agreed to the presence of an international force as a supplementary and supportive means alongside the Israel Defense Forces.

3. Recognition of Jewish state

Here, too, Netanyahu showed greater flexibility in the course of the negotiations. A senior Israeli official noted that at one stage Netanyahu replaced the term “Jewish state” with the term “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The framework document declares that peace will prevail between “two nation-states.” Netanyahu also agreed to include two clarifications in the document in order to try to placate the Palestinians, who have strong objections regarding this issue. For the first time, it was emphasized that the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement. The second, and more interesting, clarification stated that recognition of the existence of two nation-states will not be considered an attempt by one side to oblige the other to forgo its narrative or to adopt a different narrative.

4. Refugees

A senior Israeli official related that in the framework document, the Americans adopted in general terms the Israeli position that there will be no right of return of refugees to Israel. However, the Americans wanted to give the Palestinians an honorable way out on this issue, to enable them to swallow such a meaningful concession.

Two approaches were discernible in the Israeli negotiating team. Some of those involved put forward a rigid stance of principle that rejected any compromise. Others argued that in order to obtain Palestinian agreement, Israel must protect the core of its interests – meaning to remove the issue of the right of return from the agenda – but to show flexibility on other refugee-related issues.

Washington wanted to insert a clause according to which, in addition to the options of returning to the Palestinian state, remaining where they were or moving to a third country, refugees could also choose to return to Israel based on criteria that Israel would set at its discretion and sovereign decision. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu objected strenuously to the American proposals and that Tzipi Livni was even more intransigent than he on this issue.

Nevertheless, in the end Israel agreed to show flexibility here as well, and to consider return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. Israel put forward an idea according to which a special mechanism would be established to which Palestinians could apply, and Israel would examine their requests on an individual or humanitarian basis and decide whether to accept them or not, according to its own sovereign judgment. “The subject of the options to be available to the Palestinians was not finalized, and the possibility of a return to Israel remained open until the end,” says a senior Israeli official.

5. Jerusalem

This issue produced the widest gulf between Israel and the United States in the discussion of the framework document. The Americans adopted the Palestinian stance on the issue and initially wanted to insert a clause stating that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. Subsequently they agreed to soften the formulation slightly, but not fundamentally. Netanyahu refused to have the document mention in any way that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu was agreeable to a formulation that would include a statement about a future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue. According to the senior Israeli official, Netanyahu recognized the fact that without a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem there would be no agreement, but political concerns made him shirk any statement on the subject at this stage of the negotiations. The Americans hoped that they would be able to persuade Netanyahu to make a dramatic concession on Jerusalem if Abbas agreed to make a concession on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But that potential tradeoff was never put to the test.

6. Settlements

The question of the fate of the settlements in a final-status agreement was not dealt with in detail in the framework document. The paper left an opening for Israelis to remain in the Palestinian state, but this was not a central issue. Netanyahu dealt with this issue mainly outside the negotiating room, in the form of a trial balloon with the settlers.

Neglecting Mahmoud Abbas

There were no intensive discussions with the Palestinians of the sort that were held with the Israelis. One reason for this was technical: the difficulty of holding secure video talks with the Muqata – the Ramallah-based headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. But another reason was the Americans’ wrongheaded behavior in regard to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen).

Warning lights began to go on among the Israeli team at a quite early stage of the negotiations. It wasn’t clear to Netanyahu and his aides what exactly the Palestinians thought about each of the clauses in the draft framework document that were hammering out with the Americans. “At one point we discovered that throughout the entire period, the Americans didn’t actually talk to the Palestinians, only to us,” a senior Israeli official said.

A senior American official who took part in the talks admits that the bulk of the work on the document was done with the Israelis. He explained that this was due to the fact that because the Americans viewed themselves as being closer to the Palestinian approach on a large number of the issues, their major effort had to be invested in trying to get Netanyahu to soften his positions. Fearing that the Palestinians would lock themselves into a rejectionist posture, the Americans decided not to present any proposal to them until they felt their contacts with Israel had reached a sufficiently serious outcome.

However, the Americans’ comportment brought about exactly the result they had feared. On February 19, 2014, when Kerry met with Abbas in Paris and apprised him orally of the main points of the emerging framework document, the secretary of state was stunned at the reaction.

The Palestinian leader, who was unwell and in a foul mood when he arrived for the meeting, had the feeling that the Americans had pulled “a Dennis Ross” on him – referring to the veteran American diplomat who was known throughout all the years of the negotiations for his practice of first striking a deal with the Israelis and then selling it to the Palestinians as an American proposal. Abbas thought Kerry was presenting him with a done deal and trying to stuff it down his throat.

The Kerry-Abbas meeting in Paris was a total bust. Senior American and Palestinian officials maintain that Abbas has been unbudgeable since that day. He refused to hold talks on the framework document, insisting first on getting a promise that Israel would release all the prisoners it had undertaken to free at the start of the negotiations.

Throughout the whole succeeding month, the Americans tried to extract from Abbas a response or a comment on the framework document, but to no avail. Abbas viewed the document as part of a plot against him. Things came to a head on March 17, when Abbas met with President Obama at the Oval Office for more than two hours and declined to give Obama anything other than a vague promise that he would get back to him in a few days about the framework document. Which he never did.

Both Abbas and chief negotiator Erekat say rightly that the Americans never gave them a copy of the framework document, but only presented ideas orally. They could thus not peruse the paper thoroughly and formulate an opinion. At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.

“The Americans did not invest enough time in the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli official related. “They didn’t hold video talks with them or discussions into the night over every letter in the document. The result was a crisis of expectations. How many times did we say to them: What about Mahmoud Abbas? Did you talk to him? Does he agree to all these points? The Americans neglected Mahmoud Abbas throughout this period, and when Kerry came to him in Paris it was already too late.”

A senior official in the U.S. administration who took part in the talks acknowledges that the biggest mistake made by the Americans was in dealing with Abbas. “It’s true, we weren’t sensitive enough toward him and we didn’t understand how he felt,” this source says. “In retrospect, we should have behaved differently.” Some members of the Israeli negotiating team maintain that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu wrestled genuinely with the issues. One day he got up on the left side, filled with a desire to move ahead, and the next day he would get up on the right side and retract. On the one hand, he understood intellectually the need to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but emotionally he wanted to go in the opposite direction. One of the major problems that kept cropping up throughout the negotiations was that decision-making was, time and again, guided by party-political considerations. A senior Israeli official who was involved in the talks noted that Netanyahu measured almost every step he wanted to take in terms of its effect on the coalition and on the basis of his political support from the right wing.

Even when Netanyahu was ready to make concessions, such as on the 1967 lines, or to implement confidence-building measures, like imposing serious restraints on settlement construction, he declined to say so clearly and expressed himself in the opposite way. This behavior severely affected the Palestinians’ trust and made it impossible to persuade them that an effort should be made to move forward.

But the primary reason for the failure of the U.S. attempt to formulate a framework document lies in the sour relations between Netanyahu and Abbas and in the fact that no point of convergence was forged between their approaches. Both of them wanted a peace agreement, but strictly on their own terms. “There is no doubt that Netanyahu budged during the talks,” says a senior member of the Israeli negotiating team. “If you look at where he was at the start and where he got to at the end, you see that it’s not the same place. There were many issues on which he started out very extreme and then became more flexible along the way. The problem is that he budged in relation to himself. Was that enough? No.”

The Prime Minister’s Bureau responded: “Without going into details, were the U.S. framework to have been completed, it would have represented the Americans’ proposals. Besides, Israel could have had reservations about its details.”

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The Institute of National Security Studies has published a paper on the Palestinian refugee issue by Kobi Michael, the former deputy director and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs. In it he argues that, with permanent status issues impossible to resolve at the present time, there should be an increased focus on improving the humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian territories:

A paradigm shift in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse, which will enable a more developed foundation for advanced negotiations toward a future agreement, is now necessary. Specifically, the discourse must shift from national rights to human rights, focusing on the humanitarian rights of the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian Authority. Israel, with the backing of the United States and the international community, should launch a process built on the humanitarian drive to bring relief to the refugee population in the PA and transfer this obligation to the Palestinian  government, which would receive aid from Israel and the international community for the effort. 

His argument for doing so (from the point-of-view of Israeli interests) lies predominately in weakening Palestinian refugee claims of a right of return,  as well as improving the socio-economic context for future negotiations:

There is no question that a “Jenin Estates” or “Bethlehem Heights” project would become an economic and social engine in the PA’s economic, social, and infrastructure development. With appropriate, careful, and close input from the international community, it would also aid in developing the political infrastructure of the future Palestinian state. No less importantly, a move of this type would signal to Israel that there is a Palestinian willingness to soften, if not rescind, the demand for the right of return, without the Palestinian leadership having to declare at this point in time that it is willing to consider recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such willingness could surface in due course, once a project of this type advances significantly. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will gain additional territories in a manner that signals Israeli willingness for real territorial compromise in due course and improves PA territorial contiguity, as well as economic and political recovery.

For those same reason, Palestinians are likely to find in his proposals a recipe for undermining the inherent rights of the refugees, and reject it as completely unacceptable.

However, what may be most interesting about the INSS paper is not its precise recommendations, but rather what it says about Israeli policy capacity and knowledge on this issue—or rather the lack thereof. Regardless of one’s political or ideological position, this weakness ought to be a concern for everyone, for it undermines the prospects for future successful negotiations. Concern about shortcomings in Israeli knowledge of the issue refugee have often been raised to me in the past by US, European, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials. Such concerns have also been raised by former Israeli officials, including those intimately involved in negotiations and negotiation preparations. It was a point on which the overwhelming majority of the Israeli participants agreed at the Chatham House workshop on Israeli perspectives on the Palestinian refugee issue. Indeed, one Israeli government official once told me that, when tasked with preparing a background paper on refugees, they had found so little knowledge and understanding within government ministries that they were forced to depend in part on a Google search to find important information.

In particular, a close reading of Michael’s paper reveals a umber of very basic weaknesses.

  • He seems to be assuming that all refugees live in refugee camps. In fact, most don’t: only 29% of Palestinian refugees live in camps. In the West Bank and Gaza the numbers are 24% and 42% respectively.
  • He assumes that refugees are receiving exclusively UNRWA services. In fact, outside the camps, the PA is already the primary service provider to refugees.
  • He seems to be assuming that Palestinian refugees are substantially worse off than other Palestinians. However, this is generally not true. Certainly, conditions in the camps tend to be worse off than those outside the camp (although most are not “squalid”). This is not because refugees are some how trapped there in a cycle of poverty, though, but rather because the camps act as a sort of reserve of low-income housing, with individuals and families (especially in the West Bank) often moving out as their conditions improve. As Jon Hanssen-Bauer and Laurie Blome Jacobsen have noted in the link above, “studies of [refugee] living conditions show that their livelihoods have stabilized after three generations and their basic living conditions resemble those of the host country populations.” Moreover, “These camp refugees have lower incomes and poorer health and education levels than those outside the camps. However, camp refugees have better access to basic health and education services due to UNRWA’s presence. The latter point directly leads to the conclusion that the camp populations do not face homogeneously poor living conditions, nor do they constitute the main poverty problem in the host countries.”

He repeated claims that the PA somehow “exploits [the refugees] misery,” but provides no evidence that they actually do this—because, of course, there is none. Indeed, the President of the PA is himself a refugee, while the most disadvantaged population in the West Bank is not refugees, but rather rural villages in the north and south.

The author’s understanding of the political dynamics of the refugee issue is equally weak. Any move to transfer responsibility for UNRWA service provision to the PA would undoubtedly be seen as an Israeli-international conspiracy to erode refugee claims (indeed, the very reason Michael proposes it). Refugees would also be worried about the erosion of service delivery standards. It would therefore spark a massive backlash in the West Bank and Gaza, to the point of imperiling the political stability of the PA. It certainly would be a massive political gift to Hamas.

Finally, the analysis shows a pretty stunning lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the task he is proposing:

New Palestinian cities can be established in Area C, which, with Israel’s agreement, would be transferred to PA responsibility, and Palestinian refugees can be rehabilitated there. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which over the years has evolved from a mechanism to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem to a participant in perpetuating their refugee status, would change its mission and become the international community’s representative for promoting this drive. UN aid and additional aid effort would be used for this purpose. Commercial and employment areas would be built next to the Palestinian cities, with the involvement of Israeli, Jordanian, and international developers, so that refugee rehabilitation would not be limited to housing solutions, but would include a comprehensive employment, education, and welfare package.

Rehousing and building new cities doesn’t come cheap: the cost of this would be in many of billions of dollars, at a time when there’s barely enough aid to keep the PA running, and certainly not enough aid money available to address the needs of refugees fleeing Syria. Indeed, virtually all serious studies of the refugee issue have recommended against wholesale “decamping” of refugee camps, even in the aftermath of a full peace agreement. Instead, while some new residential areas might be constructed, for the most part housing issues would be addressed through the dedensification and upgrading of existing refugee camps (which would, in the aftermath of an agreement, cease to be “refugee camps” and instead become normal urban areas—which, in many ways, is what they already are).

Finally, I think commentators who favour rehousing and the transfer of services to the PA overestimate the impact this would have on the strength of Palestinian political claims on the refugee issue. Certainly the polling evidence suggests that living in a refugee camps, receiving UNRWA services, or even refugee status has very little effect on Palestinian perceptions of refugee rights or the political importance they assign to the issue. That being said, Michael’s piece is more focussed on the signal it would send Israel, which is a somewhat different issue.

Just to reiterate: while I disagree with the political thrust of the INSS paper, my criticisms here have nothing to do with political differences. Rather, my comments have to do with the lack of basic understanding of this issue, and the extent to which it leads to poor policy analysis. That this sort of paper can—some 68 years after the birth of the refugee issue and after 22 years of the “peace process”—be written by a former official responsible for Palestinian issues and posted on the website of a major Israeli think-tank is really pretty shocking.


At his Council of Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams warns that recent comments by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas signal a continuing Palestinian intransigence on the “right of return” that will wreck current US mediation efforts:

So Abbas’s maneuver here, as we approach the Kerry deadline in April, makes a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible. The terms he has just set forth will never be met. Rather than preparing for peace, he is not only making it impossible for himself to sign a deal, but also setting out terms that will make it impossible for his successors  to sign a deal.

In particular he cites recent comments made by Abbas to Fateh activists:

The Right of Return is a personal right. If you are a refugee, your son is a refugee as well. Perhaps you will decide to relinquish this right while your son decides not to, or vice versa. Your son is free to do so. When we say that this is a personal choice, it means that he can decide for himself.

This, he suggests, makes agreement impossible:

By making the “right of return” a personal right for each Palestinian, Abbas is saying the PLO has no right to negotiate over it and no right to sign an agreement that defeats or even limits that “right.” If that’s really the PLO position, there will never be an agreement.

What is interesting about Abram’s piece is the extent to which it misunderstands refugee rights (and, for that matter, all other internationally-recognized rights) altogether.

Put simply, such rights are always individual rights. On this point there is broad consensus among both refugee and international law experts. They cannot be eliminated or withdrawn by states on behalf of their citizens, for if they could do so it would undermine the whole purpose of rights in the first place. In other words, all that Abbas is stating here is almost universally recognized principle of international law. Palestinian negotiators can no more give away Palestinian refugees’ right of return that Israeli negotiators could give away the rights of Israelis (or diaspora Jews) to life, liberty and security of person.

Rather than Abbas’ statement being a position of intransigence, it is probably better seen as an effort to remove the pressure on Palestinian negotiators to obtain explicit recognition of such a right in a permanent status agreement. Implicitly his comments suggest that such recognition is irrelevant, since it exists independently of whatever treaty text Israel and the Palestinians might agree. Of course, this runs counter to Israeli’s oft-expressed interest that any  agreement be an end of all claims against Israel by the Palestinians. However, there is broad agreement here too among experts that while an agreement can substantially narrow the scope and weight of such claims, it cannot prevent all individuals making such claims. After all, why would a Palestinian citizen of the US (for example) somehow be bound by what Palestinian leaders in Ramallah agree to? I doubt very much that Abrams would favour a future Palestinian state be given this sort of extra-territorial power over Americans.

That the “right” might still exist even after an agreement does not mean, however, that significant number of Palestinians would thereby gain access to residence in Israel. I’ve argued before that the “right of return” is a much more ambiguous and contingent right in international law than many Palestinians believe it to be. It is doubtful that it applies to refugees with citizenship, and it certainly fades slowly over succeeding generations. It is also not at all clear that it applies to original homes (in Israel) rather than homeland or “country”—both of much might be reasonably understood to refer to the future Palestinian state. Finally, no Israeli court is ever going top force an Israeli government to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, and no other court would have jurisdiction. While Israeli might accept some symbolic number of refugees (as it proposed in the 2001 Taba negotiations, and again in the 2007-08 Annapolis negotiations), in practice acceptance would likely remain a matter of sovereign discretion (as expressed in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters).

Elsewhere in his blog post, Abrams also expresses concern about Palestinian plans for a referendum on any peace deal that would include the diaspora, worrying that refugees might find the package unacceptable. That is indeed a risk, although the countervailing benefit is that an endorsement would force Hamas to accept a deal too. Abrams is also criticizes Abbas’ position on refugee compensation:

Abbas has every one of those people receiving compensation. Those who move to Palestine get compensation; those who “return” to Israel get compensation; those who move to Canada or stay in Canada get compensation, and so on. So, the young man or woman born in Jordan or Canada and having full citizenship there, and staying there, gets compensation. It’s a nice fantasy for a politician to describe—every Palestinian takes part in this bonanza—but it is just that: a fantasy. Once again, it has nothing to do with actually making the choices peace will require nor with preparing Palestinians for the real future.

This is slightly odd, since the general position Abbas expresses has been the (pre-Netanyahu) Israeli position on compensation too, as evidenced by the Israeli negotiating position at Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis. Compensation may be very difficult to do, and there may be questions about who pays how much to exactly whom, but in the past decade and a half of negotiations there has never been any serious controversy (yet) over whether it should be part of a deal.

The Evens Program for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute have published the results of their most recent Peace Index poll, conducted in Israel on 3-4 March 2014. It shows Israeli public support for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but pessimism at their likely outcome. It also shows considerable doubt with regard to current US mediation efforts, with a large majority of israeli Jews believing that the Kerry initiative is biased in favour of the Palestinians.

PIM14Q3Israeli Jews are doubtful that Palestinians will accept any recognition of Israel as homeland of the Jewish people:

PIM14Q10Interestingly, a large majority of israeli Jews are willing to postpone the issue of compensation for Jews from Arab countries. They also show little confidence in the handling of any such future compensation funds by the Israeli state:



Paphos, Cyprus—looking absolutely nothing like a Palestinian refugee camp.

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.

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.


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.

Dec13palestinianrefugeeChatham House has now released the report of its December 2013 workshop on compensation for Palestinian refugees:

This is a summary of discussions that took place during a one-and-a-half day workshop on The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Compensation and Implementation Mechanisms, held on 18 and 19 December 2013 in Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire. The participants were experts on the Palestinian refugee issue, acting in a personal capacity, from the Palestinian territories, Israel, the international community and host countries. Participants were divided into working groups and asked to design specific mechanisms for Palestinian refugee compensation of the type that might be included in a future Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. These were then collectively ‘stress-tested’ by the larger group in order to identify particular challenges that might arise.

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’, which aims at an informal and comprehensive discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue, including the role of host countries and international actors. This workshop built on previous work about an implementation mechanism undertaken by Chatham House and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in collaboration with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the European Commission in 2009–10.

You can access the report here, or by clicking the image on the right. My own account of the workshop can be found here.


Last week I participated in (and helped organize) a Chatham House workshop on the rather technical issue of Palestinian refugee compensation and associated implementation mechanisms. It was held, like most other Chatham House meetings on the issue, in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell. Over two days, some two dozen Palestinian, Israeli, and international experts were formed into teams, and given the challenge of designing an appropriate reparations mechanism for the refugee issue. Each of these were then “stress tested” by the group against likely political and operational challenges, as well as different funding scenarios. Participants were in top form, and the discussions were of extremely high quality.

The Chatham House team will be pulling together a full workshop report in the new year. For now, however, I thought I would offer a few of my own take-aways from the meeting, with the obvious caveat that other participants may have somewhat different impressions.

First, I was impressed with how much discussion of the issue has matured in the last decade or so. When IDRC and Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet held a workshop on compensation in 1999, it was fraught with political sensitivities. Some Palestinians feared that a focus on compensation was somehow an effort to erode other refugee rights. Now, however, it is broadly recognized that reparations are a right in and of themselves. Moreover, the quality of the discussion has improved dramatically over the years. Much of this is due to growing amount of policy-relevant research on the topic, including that by the International Organization of Migration (supported by IDRC), the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO, and others.

Second, the workshop underscored how extremely complicated compensation is. The format of the workshop pushed participants to delve into technical details, ranging from eligibility to valuation, inheritance laws, payment, structures and procedures of an international mechanism and fund, and other aspects beside. These are not minor details too—if you get some of them wrong, the process is likely to run into serious practical and political problems. Claims-based systems of compensation are likely to be especially complicated, given the need to trace back properties, ownerships, and values over 65 years and three generations.

Third, an absolutely central theme running through the meeting was that doing compensation right fundamentally hinges on addressing normative issues of responsibility, moral acknowledgement, and recognition. Without these, the amounts of money that are likely to be available will be inadequate to provide any sort of  closure to the issue. On the contrary, throwing  just money and a mechanism at the issue of property seizures and forced displacement would only aggravate refugee grievances.

This is really, really important. Up until now, most policymakers have assumed that a compensation regime would be something of a positive element that could help sell other parts of a broader deal. I am now of the view that—at best—its effects are neutral. More likely, it may could prove to be a significant liability.

The problem is exacerbated by resource limitations. None of the mechanisms we discussed looked likely to work with less than $30 billion in financing. By contrast, the US had thought that up to $20 billion in funding might be available for  compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees at the Camp David negotiations in 2000, and  Israel seemed willing to consider a fixed sum contribution of around $3-5 billion during the Taba refugee negotiations in 2001. At the most recent workshop, as with every other meeting I have ever attended on the subject, those with the most experience in the donor community warned that the international community’s contribution to a compensation fund would be limited. Instead, donors would be more willing to provide support for repatriation and development costs.

It could be argued, of course, that compensation funds are meant to be a symbolic recognition of the suffering suffered by refugees, rather than fully repairing the damages done by the Nakba. However, one can’t imbue an act with symbolic value in the eyes of victims merely by assertion—refugees themselves have to view it in that way too. However, the sorts of amounts often discussed for “refugeehood” payments to Palestinian refugees may be seen as insulting rather than  providing moral and emotional closure. (They add up quickly, too—at $1,000 per refugee you’re already running up a total of $5-8 billion or so.)

Given this, I’m now tending to the view that we may need to rethink the entire paradigm of individualized compensation. Or, perhaps, the decision ought to be left to refugees themselves. One could envisage an agreement in which an international fund (based largely on israeli contributions) is established, but its ultimate use is made subject to broad consultations within the refugee community, even a referendum of sorts.

I’m not at all optimistic that the current peace process will lead to any sorts of breakthroughs, much less an agreement to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue. However, the refugee issue is also not going away—and, if it is ever to be resolved in the future, thinking through these sorts of complex technical issues in advance could be very valuable.

9780745333380While it may never have the cultural and literary impact of Lord of the Rings, I’m pleased to report of the third and final book in Palestine Refugee ResearchNet’s trilogy on the Palestinian refugee issue has now been published: Rex Brynen and Roula el-Rifai, eds., The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for a Resolution (London: Pluto Press, 2013).

In this unique volume, leading analysts – many of whom have been actively involved in past negotiations on this issue – provide an overview of the key dimensions of the Palestinian refugee problem. Mindful of the sensitive and contested nature of the subject, none offers a single solution. Instead, each contribution summarises and synthesises the existing scholarly and governmental work on the topic.

Each paper develops an array of policy options for resolving various aspects of the refugee issue, written in such a way as to provide a broad menu of choices rather than a single narrow set of recommendations.

The book is the product of a longstanding collaboration between Roula and myself, and between the International Development Research Centre and PRRN. Our two previous volumes examined Palestinian refugee compensation (Pluto Press, 2013) and refugee repatriation and development (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

The book was published just in time for a recent Chatham House workshop on refugee compensation, where the chapters by Norbert Wühler and Heike Niebergall were invaluable. Many thanks to Pluto Press for rushing the first copies to Minster Lovell.


List of Tables
Preface and Acknowledgements

1. Research, Policy and Negotiations and Resolving the Palestinian Refugee Problem
Rex Brynen and Roula El-Rifai

2. Implementation Mechanism: Policy Choices and Implementation Issues
Norbert Wühler and Heike Niebergall

3. Whither UNRWA?
Liana Brooks–Rubin

4. Return, Repatriation, Residency and Resettlement
Rex Brynen

5. An Offer They Can Refuse: Host countries and a Palestinian-Israeli Agreement on Refugees
Roula El-Rifai and Nadim Shehadi

6. Refugee Compensation: Policy Choices and Implementation Issues
Heike Niebergall and Norbert Wühler 

7. Addressing Jewish Claims in the Context of a Palestinian-Israeli Agreement
Michael Fischbach

8. Refugee Absorption and Development
Rex Brynen

9. Intangible Needs, Moral Acknowledgement and the Palestinian Refugee Issue
Michael Molloy, John Bell with Nicole Waintraub, Ian Anderson

10. Managing Refugee Expectations
Khalil Shikaki

11. A Never-Ending End to Claims
Geoffrey Aronson