Archive for the ‘right of return’ Category

In an article today in The Nation, Noam Chomsky is critical of the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions) campaign against Israeli occupation, arguing that it needs to be based on a more realistic appraisal of both current conditions and the differences between the Israeli and South African case (on which BDS is partially modelled).

He also argues that BDS’s insistence on the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is harmful to its cause:

The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by “(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful—not only in “punishing” Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it.

However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.

You’ll find the full article here.

Zochrot has published a number of videos (some in original Arabic or Hebrew, some dubbed into English) from its September 2013 conference on “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees.” You’ll find one of these below—the rest can be found here.

(Above: panel on “State, Regime and Space: Return Where?”)

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.

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.

I recently came across videos of two talks by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in which he discusses the resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue. Both are quite interesting.

The first of these (posted below) arises from comments he made to the Hudson Society in March 2013 or so. The former PM is given a somewhat leading question that seems to be designed to elicit criticism of the Palestinians:

Do you believe that the Palestinians really believe in the “right of return,” and if not why do they keep pushing the issue instead of preparing [their] population [for] what they need to do, as no Israeli or American leader would ever agree to a “right of return?”

In his reply, however, Olmert argues that he believes the Palestinian leadership to be realistic on the issue. He then proceeds to tout his own proposal for very limited symbolic return of 5,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel, coupled with apparently unlimited absorption within a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and compensation to both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. Certainly, this falls short of the Palestinian position. However, it does forcefully undermine the twin notions that 1) the issue is unsolvable, and that 2) the Palestinians are fundamentally intransigent on the issue. He even manages to get in a positive mention of the Arab League peace initiative, correctly noting that it effectively provides Israel with a veto over refugee arrangements.

Olmert also refuses to get drawn into a sustained condemnation of the Palestinian leadership for failing to prepare their people for possible future compromises. Instead, he responds by highlighting the failure of successive Israeli governments to adequately prepare Israelis for the necessity and value of withdrawing from the Palestinian territories.

The second clip (also posted below) is from a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in March 2012. Here he criticizes the notion that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state should be considered a prerequisite for peace negotiations (2:15), and also discusses how the refugee issue might be resolved (3:21).

None of this, of course, means that any progress should be expected on the refugee issue under the present adverse political circumstances.

Abbas, refugees, and return

Posted: November 3, 2012 by Rex Brynen in 1948, Israel, right of return

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent television interview with Israel’s Channel 2 is receiving considerable attention, in large part because of statements apparently downplaying the right of return to 1948 territories and suggesting that refugees should focus instead on a future state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem :

I visited Safad before once. But I want to see Safad. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine now for me is ‘67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever…this is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel.

Not surprisingly, the statement was quickly attacked by Hamas, and by many Palestinian activists (for typical example, see here at Electronic Intifada). It was also praised by Israeli President Shimon Peres, but generally dismissed by those in the Netanyahu government—after all, it runs rather counter to their preferred image of the PA/PLO as inflexible maximalists secretly bent on the destruction of Israel. Meanwhile, officials in Abbas’ office tried to spin the statement and reiterate his commitment to addressing the right of return in negotiations so as to mitigate political backlash.

Clever gambit to influence Israeli public opinion? Accidental frankness? Poor choice of English words? Typical confused Palestinian messaging? Lesson in the political difficulty of reconciling the hard reality that refugees are unlikely to ever enjoy a meaningful “right of return” to 1948 areas with deep-seated popular attachment to the normative principle? All of the above?

Take your pick.

Today’s issue of Haaretz (12 June 2012) has a good story on the recent Senate amendment to the US FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, which would require the State Department to report on how many UNRWA-registered refugees originated within Israel, and how many are descendants of that original group.

Known as the Kirk Amendment, after its sponsor, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), considered one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Washington, the bill conceals within its 150-plus words a fierce battle between Republican legislators and the State Department over the United States’ relationship with UN institutions.

Every year the United States allocates $250 million to UNRWA, which provides food as well as health, education and employment services to millions of Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For years Congressional representatives have been trying to reduce U.S. contributions to the agency, on the grounds that UNRWA was born in sin and that its policies are anti-Israeli.

What is not common knowledge in the Beltway is that the Kirk Amendment got its start in the Jerusalem office of MK Einat Wilf (Atzmaut ), who toiled for months, together with AIPAC lobbyists and Kirk’s staff, to promote the change.

The report highlights both Israel’s rather schizophrenic attitude towards UNRWA, and the slight changes in Israeli policy that have occurred under the Netanyahu government. On the one hand, officials at the Israeli Ministry of Defence were wary about any initiative that might reduce overall UNRWA funding:

Wilf met with senior Defense Ministry policy official Amos Gilad and explained that she sought to end the agency’s policy of giving refugee status to successive generations of Palestinian refugees. “UNRWA’s activities perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of solving it,” Wilf says.

In a letter he sent Wilf in January, Gilad set the boundaries for her initiative, writing that the UNRWA budget should not be harmed , and that “UNRWA plays an important role in aiding the Palestinian population.”

“One must prevent a circumstance which endangers the continued transfer of these [UNRWA] services, services that align with Israeli interests,” Gilad added.

On the other hand, there was some political encouragement from both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s office:

After Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Ron Dermer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign-policy adviser, gave their approval to Wilf’s efforts, she returned to AIPAC staffers and also approached Steven J. Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the organization who now works for a Washington think tank, to get things rolling on Capitol Hill.

Reaction in the Arab world to the move has been very negative, but somewhat exaggerated. Certainly the move is intended to weaken refugee claims by implying that most UNRWA-registered refugees aren’t really refugees at all. However, at this point it doesn’t challenge UNRWA funding, nor could the US easily get UNRWA to alter its eligibility rules—power over the UNRWA mandate, after all, resides at the UN General Assembly. How US senators do or do not want to count refugees would certainly have no practical effect on any future refugee negotiations, which aren’t likely to happen any time soon in any case. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the move could even backfire by resulting in a much strong UN endorsement of refugee rights.

That being said, the episode does point to several important sets of trends and issues that need to be thought about more thoroughly:

  • What are the implications for UNRWA, and for refugees, of prolonged statement in the “peace process”? Can UNRWA indeed continue to muddle through by providing the current level and types of services to an ever-expanding number of registrants?
  • Does UNRWA need to shift to a more asymmetric mode of service delivery? Should greater priority be given the stateless, marginalized refugees in Lebanon (for example), and even less to those (citizen, tax-paying) refugees in Jordan? If so, should this been done on the basis of need, status, or some combination of the two?
  • Has Israeli policy shifted on UNRWA, and if so what might be the implications of this?
  • Is there need for a more frank, and realistic, discussion of the “right of return”?
  • How do attacks upon UNRWA as a perpetuator of conflict inhibit its ability to deliver services? What are their operational implications for fund-raising, perceptions of neutrality, and so forth?

These are all thorny issues indeed, and well worth some quiet and thoughtful discussion. (Any refugee workshop organizers out there, take note!)

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister seems to have had a striking change of heart. First he narrated a recent YouTube video which called for Palestinian refugees to be absorbed within host countries, and attacked the multi-generational perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee issue. Now, in an exchange with someone on Twitter, he has enthusiastically endorsed the unlimited right of refugees and their descendants to return to lands from which they were forcibly displaced:

That’s the problem with Twitter, of course: sometimes you tweet without thinking, and in so doing fatally undermine the entire political message that you’ve been trying to convey.

Wikileaks: Jordan’s Palestinians

Posted: September 16, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, refugee attitudes, right of return, US

The recent release of the full Wikileaks collection of unredacted US diplomatic cables has generated political interest in Jordan, where some have claimed that the cables show evidence of a secret US plot to make Jordan into alternative Palestinian homeland. Particular attention has been directed to the notion of a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians do not return to Palestine but instead are integrated into the Jordanian political system:

¶22. (C) A common theme that emerges from discussions with Palestinian-origin contacts and some government officials (although not necessarily East Bankers as a group) is a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians give up their aspirations to return in exchange for integration into Jordan’s political system.  For East Bank politicians and regime supporters, this deal could help solve the assumed dual loyalty of Palestinians in Jordan.  For Palestinian-origin citizens, the compact would, ideally, close the book on their antagonistic relationship with the state and open up new opportunities for government employment and involvement in the political process.

¶23.  (C) “If we give up our right of return, they have to give us our political rights,” says Refai.  “In order for Jordan to become a real state, we have to become one people.”  Rantawi calls for a comprehensive peace process that would resolve issues of identity and rights for Palestinians in Jordan as part of the “package.”  This, he says, would require major reforms in Jordan, its transformation into a constitutional monarchy in which greater executive authority is devolved, and external pressure on the Government of Jordan to ensure that equal rights for Palestinians are enforced.

¶24.  (C) If a peace agreement fails to secure political rights for Palestinian-origin Jordanians as they define those rights, many of our contacts see the right of return as an insurance policy through which Palestinians would vote with their feet.  Refai asks: “If we aren’t getting our political rights, then how can we be convinced to give up our right of return?”  Palestinian-Jordanian Fuad Muammar, editor of Al-Siyasa Al-Arabiyya weekly, noted that in the past few years there has been a proliferation of “right of return committees” in Palestinian refugee camps.  This phenomenon, he said, reflected growing dissatisfaction with Jordanian government steps to improve their lot here and an increased focus on Palestine.

¶25.  (C) Comment:  Just because there is a logic to trading the right of return for political rights in Jordan does not mean that such a strategy is realistic, and it certainly will not be automatic.  There are larger, regime-level questions that would have to be answered before Palestinian-origin Jordanians could be truly accepted and integrated into Jordanian society and government. In the absence of a viable and functioning Palestinian state, those who are charged with protecting the current identity of the Jordanian state will be loath to consider measures that they firmly believe could end up bringing to fruition Jordan is Palestine – or “al-Watan al-Badeel.”  It is far from certain that East Bankers would be willing to give up the pride of place that they currently hold in a magnanimous gesture to their Palestinian-origin brethren.  Senior judge Al-Ghazo told us: “In my opinion, nothing will change in Jordan after the right of return.  East Bankers will keep their positions, and the remaining Palestinians will keep theirs.”  Likewise, none of our Palestinian contacts who saw a post-peace process environment as a necessary condition for their greater integration in Jordan offered a compelling case as to why it would be sufficient.

If you actually bother to read the cables, however, it is clear that there is no conspiracy at all, but rather some pretty solid and factual reporting by US Embassy staff on the private viewpoints of a range of Jordanian interlocutors of both East Bank and Palestinian origin. Indeed, the February 2008 cable quoted above (on “The Right of Return: What it Means in Jordan“) provides perhaps the best single short treatment I know of the topic in any language, drawing out the many tensions and nuances around the issue. It is controversial in Jordan partly because it highlights continuing discrimination against Palestinians, as well as the extent to which many Palestinian and Jordanian figures have come to view achievement of the “right of return” as improbable.

Uncomfortable truths no doubt—but truths nonetheless.

The US Embassy in Jordan also described (June 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian fears of an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (August 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian criticism of King Abdullah. US diplomats provided some very solid reporting (May 2008) regarding Jordan’s measures to strip some Palestinian citizens of their citizenship, and a four part series of cables (June 20o8) describing the social and political dynamics of Palestinian refugee camps (here, here, here, and here)—among others.

Nothing in these cables should be particularly surprising to those who follow Jordanian politics. However, these are discussions that Jordanians usually have with friends, over coffee or dinner—and not in public forums where they are often considered far too sensitive for frank and substantive debate. I hope that the leak of the cables results in a more productive conversation within Jordan over the issue—and doesn’t harm any of those named in the cables who dared to share their honest views with foreign diplomats.