Posts Tagged ‘Minster Lovell Process’


Chatham House Royal Institute of international affairs

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

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

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

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

The workshop formed part of Chatham House’s on-going work on the regional dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue, known as the ‘Minster Lovell Process’1, which aims at an informal and comprehensive discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue, including the role of host countries and international actors. The workshop was hosted by the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme and was kindly funded by a grant from the UK Conflict Pool. The other workshops in the current series have addressed compensation and implementation mechanisms2 and the normative dimensions3 of the refugee issue.

Key findings

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

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


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.

A few weeks ago I participated in a meeting on  “Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process: Evaluating the Impasse” convened by the Royal Institute of International affairs (Chatham House) as part of their longstanding Minster Lovell process. The meeting drew more than two dozen participants, drawn from academia, government, NGOs, and international organizations.

As usual, Minster Lovell was lovely.

Also as usual, the discussion was informal, well-informed, and free ranging. Despite the title of the conference, I argued that the “peace process” was effectively defunct for the near and medium term—indeed, continued discussion of it as if it were a living viable thing reminds me of nothing quite so much as the “Dead Parrot” sketch from Monty Python.

 Simply put, the current Israeli government is not interested in any reasonable compromise with the Palestinians, and is generally comfortable with the status quo of continued occupation. Mahmud is more interested in reasonable compromise, but he is also a weak leader, and the continued Fateh vs Hamas divisions seriously compromise the ability of the Palestinians to do anything.

A few others (but not many) at the meeting were a little more optimistic, hoping that were President Obama elected to a second term that the US might launch a bold new peace initiative. With Knesset elections now pending too, it is also possible that the Israeli political spectrum might shift in ways that make progress towards peace more likely. However, even if Obama wins reelection in November I’m not very optimistic of major changes in US policy. I think a substantial political shift in Israel is even less likely.  I see few prospects for substantial Palestinian reconciliation.  As I have argued before, I also don’t think that the “Arab Spring” and other developments in the region make progress more likely.

In short, I think we’re in for a decade or more of dysfunctional stalemate. What then are the implications for the refugees, the refugee issue, UNRWA, and host countries? What particular scenarios lay ahead?

Most immediately there is the challenge of an increasingly bloody Syrian civil war. While most Palestinian refugees in that country have tried to remain relatively neutral, they have become increasingly affected nonetheless. Refugee camps and districts have become the scene of regime security operations or fighting. Refugees may also be drawn in as more active participants. This obviously places a severe burden on UNRWA as it attempts to maintain its operation in Syria while dealing with those refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. In a post-Asad Syria I think Palestinians will likely once more enjoy the sort of positive treatment they have enjoyed under the current government, but this will be in the context of a war-ravaged country which will likely suffer from serious problems of economic reconstruction, insecurity and political instability.

Regarding Lebanon, there are again immediate challenges arising from the conflict in Syria, in particular the (so far, rather limited) flow of Palestinian refugees across the border. This could accelerate, of course, as fighting intensifies. While the Lebanese government has hardly been welcoming of refugee inflows, it has perhaps been less unwelcoming than one might have imagined. Unlike some, I don’t think that the conflict in Syria will tip Lebanon into full-scale civil conflict. However, I do think the risk will increase after the Syrian conflict is over, when a new government in Damascus attempts to strengthen its Lebanese Sunni allies against a Hizbullah that the Syrian opposition has grown to hate. Political rebalancing can be a messy thing.

There is also the risk, of course, that an Israel-Iran confrontation spreads to Lebanon, either because Hizbullah retaliates following an Israeli attack on Iran, or because Israel decides to preemptively attack Hizbullah as part of an attack on Iran. While Palestinian refugees were less affected during the last war in 2006 than many Lebanese population groups, their vulnerability could increase if Israeli military actions were more intense next time around (which they might well be).

The attitude of Jordan to Palestinians fleeing the conflict in Syria has been even more restrictive than Lebanon’s, mirroring its earlier exclusionary treatment of Palestinians who fled Iraq. As in Lebanon, this policy is rooted in domestic politics, in this case a fear among East Bankers of a Palestinian influx. However, I do think there is some room at the margins to influence Jordanian policy in slightly more favourable directions. The international community should offer some third country temporary protection or resettlement opportunities to Palestinians entering Jordan, thereby assuring Amman of a degree of onward movement. Western donors should pre-commit now to supporting refugee repatriation back to Syria when the conflict there is over. It should also extend other aid incentives so as to reward Amman if it moves in a more positive direction. (Much of this also applies to Lebanon too, it should be added.)

While the Syrian civil war presents the most immediate challenge to refugee communities, there are others.

The Palestinian Authority has recently faced substantial internal protest, arising from economic slowdown, the PA’s current fiscal crisis, and the moribund “peace process.” While I don’t think at present this portends an eventual “Palestinian Spring” that threatens Fateh’s hold on power in the West Bank, it is possible that the fiscal crisis could generate greater internal political instability. This has implications for refugees and for UNRWA, especially if it affects the provision of public services.

Regarding UNRWA, I think it is likely to face a more hostile fundraising environment for some years to come. Part of this will arise from the continued global economic recession, especially in the Eurozone crisis grows deeper. While UNRWA has made efforts to diversify its donor base, there are real limits to how much can be generated this way. The current anti-UNRWA advocacy campaign also makes UNRWA’s job more difficult, especially in the US.

One key question in this regard is whether the attitude of Israel to UNRWA is undergoing a change, as evidenced by comments from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in particular. Israel has never real had a clear policy on either refugees or on UNRWA. Some Israeli officials privately dismiss Ayalon’s campaign as a personal initiative, and it would appear that Israel didn’t really welcome Canada’s 2009 decision to end core funding for UNRWA. On the other hand, Israeli policy could well drift into an anti-UNRWA stance not because anyone has thought it through, but rather by default. That would make Agency fund-raising even more difficult, especially in the US.

No one at the meeting, by contrast, thought that the Israeli government’s current campaign to emphasize the claims of Jews who fled Arab countries would somehow weaken the Palestinian negotiating position on the refugee issue. Indeed, several argued that it could even work to the Palestinians’ advantage.

One possible development that could both directly and indirectly impact refugees in the near future is a Palestinian bid to gain recognition by the United Nations General Assembly as a non-member state. Overall I think this would be a useful move by further strengthening the international consensus around a two-state solution, especially if it were linked to an explicit recognition of the 1967 borders (with minor territorial swaps) as the basis for any future peace agreement.

However, the move could bring with it major risks, notably moves by the US (and especially the US Congress) to cut support for both the PA and UN specialized agencies—including UNRWA. Unlike UNESCO, Palestine can’t “join” UNRWA, which perhaps reduces the risk. On the other hand, as an agency that exclusively caters to Palestinians, UNRWA might be deliberately targeted.

Israel might also suspend tax transfers to the PA, dramatically worsening its fiscal crisis. While I don’t think any US Administration or Israel would wish to push the PA to the point of fiscal and political collapse, it is not impossible that matters could escalate beyond initial intentions. If a newly UN-recognized state of Palestine moves to join the International Criminal Court and raises the possibility of ICC indictments of Israeli officials for activities in the occupied territories, for example, the Israeli political backlash, coupled with US Congressional overreaction, could potentially reach a point which imperils basic PA service delivery and, in turn, the survival of the PA itself (ironically, to Hamas’ benefit).

What are the implications of this for researchers? Most people at the meeting suggested that research which focuses on how an eventual refugee agreement might be designed and implemented remains useful, even with near- and medium-term prospects for political progress so dark—after all, such research can always be dusted off if and when the political context improves. However, it also would be increasingly useful to examine how key actors might best respond to the emerging challenges that lie ahead, in a practical way that addresses the social, economic, and security needs of the refugee population.

I’m just headed home from a very enjoyable Chatham House conference on the “Arab Spring” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting was part of the continuing Minster Lovell process, although unlike most of these it had no particular focus on the Palestinian refugee issue. It also took place against the very nice backdrop of Ma’in hot springs in Jordan, thereby continuing the tradition (for good or ill) of having meetings in lovely places that look absolutely nothing at all like refugee camps.

Discussion was rich and views were varied, making it impossible to provide an overall summary of workshop conclusions. Instead, I’ll offer my own take-away on the issues raised, with the caveat that others who were there may have very different views on these topics.

  • The Arab Spring might be a transformative event for the region, but it isn’t a transformative watershed for Israeli-Palestinian relations or the peace process. Instead, the apparent inability to move the peace process forward is largely due to Israeli and Palestinian reasons (compounded, as noted later, by dysfunctional diplomacy by the international community). Continued Palestinian political divisions are part of the reason for the stalemate. Far more fundamental are the problems on the Israeli side, and in particular the current Netanyahu government that has no interest in seeing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on reasonable terms. In the context of such rejectionism, getting the parties to the negotiating table serves little purpose, other than to delegitimize negotiations (especially if it takes place in the context of continuing illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem).
  • The Arab Spring was one of the factors contributing to the Palestinian decision to pursue recognition at the United Nations, as Mahmud Abbas responded to growing public expectations. The process also gives the Palestinians a new set of diplomatic options, and a potential source of pressure that can be intensified or relaxed with changing circumstances.
  • The Arab Spring was also a factor in the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement, due to increased Palestinian domestic expectations as well as changing regional circumstances (such the impact of events in Syria on Hamas, as well as renewed Egyptian mediation). However, there is still enormous distance to be travelled: a technocratic national unity government must be agreed, elections must be held, rival Fateh- and Hamas- controlled security services must be unified—all against a backdrop of continued political rivalry, hostility from Israel to any involvement of Hamas in the PA, and donor suspicion.
  • The transition in Egypt remains uncertain, but it is clear that a future, more representative Egyptian government will be much colder to Israel than was the Mubarak dictatorship. Even if the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Nour Party (Salafists) carry their initial success in the current parliamentary elections into subsequent round (and I’m sure they will), this does not necessarily mean an end to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. A remilitarization of relations with Israel would be enormously expensive for Egypt, both in terms of increased defence expenditures and the almost certain loss of US aid. This could compromise efforts efforts at economic recovery—and the ever-pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood knows it.
  • We didn’t spend much time talking about Egypt’s partial loss of control over the Sinai, evidenced in increased tensions with the Bedouins, increased arms smuggling, attacks on the gas pipeline to Israel, and the cross-border attack near Eilat in August (initially blamed by Israel on the Popular Resistance Committees, but possibly conducted by a much more ad hoc group of militants inside and outside Gaza). This will be a continuing source of tension with Israel, and a possible flashpoint if there is a future high-casualty terrorist attack.
  • Events in Syria have major geostrategic implications, especially if the Asad regime falls in a way that severs Syria’s longstanding alliance with Iran and results in a downgrading of relations with Hizbullah. Such an outcome would certainly be a major loss for Iran and Hizbullah, and a gain for Israel. Israel, on the other hand, has always had a “predictable enemy” in the Asad regimes, and is also nervous at the possible implications of continuing instability in Syria, or the rise of an unpredictable populist nationalist regime (especially given Syria’s possession of a significant chemical weapon stockpile). Despite Hamas losing Damascus as a functional headquarters as the Syrian civil war intensifies, there is no reason to believe that it will suffer in the same way in the longer term. Hamas (unlike Hizbullah) has not been seen by Syrians as a supporter of the Ba’thist regime, and a great many Palestinian refugees in Syria have been sympathetic to the protesters. It doesn’t hurt that they are Sunnis either, given the sectarian undercurrents of some contemporary Syrian politics.
  • We didn’t much discuss the prospects for Jordan (perhaps because we were in Jordan, which generates particular sensitivities). I think the Hashemite regime will weather the storm, albeit with political damage. It will continue to emphasize the unity of Jordan AND play the East Bank vs. Palestinian card as serve its purposes. Any substantial reform in Jordan (and I am doubtful we will see that) would also shine an inevitable spotlight on the situation of Palestinians in the country.
  • Overall, we are likely to see greater support for the Palestinian cause in the wake of the Arab Spring among Arab regimes that are more sensitive to public opinion. This will be partly limited for the next few years, however, by a preoccupation with domestic issues in transitional countries. Moreover, I don’t think that an increase in Arab support actually makes a huge difference to Israeli-Palestinian negotiating dynamics. Instead, as suggested earlier, Israeli and Palestinian factors are more important.
  • A critical issue, therefore, is how the Arab Spring plays out within Israeli politics. As one colleague noted, events of the past year are refracted by most Israelis through the prism of their preexisting political views. Those who support a two state solution see the Arab Spring as further highlighting the need for peace, lest Israel otherwise find itself isolated in an increasingly hostile and Islamist regional environment. Israeli hardliners, on the other hand, tend to view recent events as confirmation of their view that the Middle East is a dangerous and unpredictable place, with Islamic radicalism lurking around every corner. In such a context, they would argue, it would be foolish to make risky territorial compromises with an unstable and potentially hostile Palestine. This view, of course, was articulated by Benjamin Netanyahu in his Knesset speech late last month, when he warned that “Israel is facing a period of instability and uncertainty in the region. This is certainly not the time to listen to those who say follow your heart,” and declared “I will not establish Israel’s policy on illusions. There’s a huge upheaval here…whoever doesn’t see it is burying his head in the sand.” I think that the alarmist view has a marginal advantage in this battle of interpretations—and in Israeli politics, even marginal shifts in public opinion can be important. On top of this, as Daniel Levy recently noted in Foreign Affairs, political and demographic trends in Israel tends favour the religious and nationalist camp. As a result, not only will Israel be increasingly less inclinded to reasonable compromise, but the Arab Spring will tend to reinforce this reluctance.
  • A wild card in all of this is the Israeli economy and related social dynamics. There was considerable discussion at the meeting of the (partly) Tahrir-square inspired Israeli social protests over the summer, and whether they would either shift the Israeli domestic balance or make conceptual connections between issues of Israeli social and economic development and Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. To date they haven’t. The Israeli participants also expressed considerable dismay at the state of Israeli democracy, given efforts to limit NGOs, criminalize commemoration of the Nakba, endorse boycotts, or otherwise freely express political views.
  • On the Palestinian side, the Arab Spring has created a sense that some historical momentum has been regained, and even that time might now be on their side. This is particularly true of Hamas, which can look to the political success of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere as evidence that it can afford to take a long view. I am far from convinced that time is on the Palestinians side, given both continued Israeli settlement activity (especially around Jerusalem) as well as trends in Israeli domestic politics. Moreover, I think the view that history favours Palestinian liberation tends to work against a frank and realistic assessment of Palestinian strategic options, especially within Hamas itself (which has partly made a transition to acceptance of a two-state solution, but in a gradual and limited way).
  • There was discussion among the group over whether the two state model of resolving the conflict is itself dead, and whether alternative models might become more attractive. I agree that a two state solution gets harder by the day, although I’m not prepared to pronounce it dead quite yet. I think a one state model is illusory and unobtainable within this century, given Israel’s core, fundamental raison d’etre of being a Jewish state.  More likely, I fear, is a one-and-a-half state solution, in other words an evolving version of what we have now: an Israel state, and a Palestinian Bantustan.
  • Concern was also raised by several Israeli and Palestinian participants that trends in the region (the electoral success of Islamist parties, the growing influence of the religious vote in Israel) might gradually transform the conflict into a religious one that would be less amenable to resolution.
  • There was a broad consensus among participants that US policy has been something of a disaster under Obama. Too much emphasis had been placed on negotiations at the expense of clarifying core principles. Given the current election season in the US, no one expected that Washington would do much more in the next year. Moreover, if Obama were to be reelected, there was little optimism that his Middle East policy would much different in a second term. While it is hard to predict what Romney might do in the White House (on any issue), the general view was that he would tilt even more to the Israeli right waing. A Gingrich White House, with John Bolton as Secretary of State? That, of course, would be an unmitigated disaster for the peace process.
  • I strongly argued that European policy has been a coequal disaster with US policy. The EU had failed to generate the sorts of pressures it is capable of on the settlements issue. It had also failed to grasp the opportunities presented by the Palestinian UN bid. The British (who have some strikingly clever diplomats) has rather sadly lined up behind the American position in many regards. The French had handled it somewhat better in a public relations sense, but in substantive terms had done little better. Given the ongoing Eurozone crisis, no one is expecting European performance will improve any time soon.

Despite the meeting being part of the Minster Lovell series, there was virtually no direct discussion of the implication of this for refugees (some of which had been discussed at the last meeting. However, if my pessimistic view is accurate, it certainly suggests that there will be absolutely no progress to resolving the refugee issue any time soon.

A Minster Lovell report

Posted: October 15, 2011 by Rex Brynen in conferences, peace process
Tags: ,

Last week I attended the latest meeting of the so-called “Minster Lovell Process” on the Palestinian refugee issue. These meetings, first organized under the aupices of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford in the mid-1990s and relaunched in May 2000 under the auspices of Chatham House, are usually held in idyllic surroundings of the small village of Minster Lovell, located northwest of Oxford on the southern edge of the Cotswolds. You’ll find a summary of recent and past phases of the project here. All of these meetings have taken place under the Chatham House Rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

The Minister Lovell Process is largely intended to promote a frank dialogue between Palestinians, Arab host countries, and the international community on the refugee issue. For that reason, there are usually no Israelis in attendance, for fear that the Arab-Israeli dynamics that might result would overwhelm the desired focus on the regional, Arab dimensions of the refugee issue. In some cases it would also be difficult to get everyone together in the same room, since Palestinian refugees from Syria or Lebanon can face real political and personal costs for any apparent collaboration with Israeli officials or scholars. The absence of Israelis, of course, also distorts the meetings in other ways, creating less opportunity for the articulation of Israeli concerns and perspectives. To address this, the project has variously held overlapping meetings (Israeli-Palestinian then Arab-Palestinian), held Israeli-Israeli meetings, or used other mechanisms. The June 2009 simulated refugee negotiations organized by Chatham House involved very senior former Israeli officials, whose presence then caused one former Arab diplomat  to precipitously flee the meeting following the introductions.

The Minister Lovell meetings are  intended to promote dialogue and networking well beyond the few days of the workshop. In several cases these connections have proven very useful in advancing specific policy initiatives, and some of the participants have gone on to very senior positions in their own governments. Minster Lovell discussions are undoubtedly facilitated by the setting, which includes a pub, a nearby ruined castle, a millstream, beautiful gardens, and green fields. Pretty much everyone who has ever been there would admit that it is as unlike a Palestinian refugee camp as one could possibly imagine.

Although the “Minister Lovell Process” is in large part about process, there is always a substantial focus for discussions too. This time there were three: an update on work being done on possible implementation mechanisms for any future agreement on the refugee issue; the implications for the refugee issue of the ongoing Palestinian initiative at the United Nations; and implications of the “Arab Spring” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  1. The session on implementation mechanisms was anchored by an excellent presentation on the issues involved, summarizing the work of a multi-year project undertaken by a major international organization. The most difficult and complicated elements of this concerned any future compensation refugees, with the presenters underscoring the difficulty of sorting out multi-generational claims (for example, what inheritance laws would apply if claimants live in multiple legal jurisdictions) as well the substantial risk that available resources fall far short of refugee expectations.
  2. With regard to the current UN bid, the meeting saw a reprise of earlier debate over whether a shift in UN representation from a PLO observer delegation to “Palestinian state” delegation would undermine the ability of the Palestinian side to advance refugee interests. This in turn led to broader discussion of issues of representation and legitimacy. Those close to the initiative put substantial weight on the domestic political ramifications of the initiative within the Palestinian territories, implicitly suggesting that the bid had as much to do with strengthening Mahmud Abbas in the midst of the Arab Spring as with a clearly thought-out Palestinian diplomatic strategy. There was also considerable discussion of the European response, with a number of participants feeling that Europe was working too hard to shelter the US from diplomatic fall-out and thereby passing up an opportunity to stake out an independent and constructive European position.
  3. Finally, with regard to the “Arab Spring,” some though that changes within the region would greatly buttress the Palestinian position, including on the refugee issue. I tend to see the effects as more mixed. In Jordan, the regime has implicitly used East Bank/Palestinian tensions as a wedge to weaken reformist pressures, which hardly works to the advantage of Palestinian refugee there. In Syria, many refugees have been sympathetic to the uprising, and Hamas has pointedly refused to endorse the beleaguered Ba’thist dictatorship. This presumably means that any post-Asad regime will not be hostile to the (predominately Sunni) refugee population. On the other hand, the current political tensions, violence, economic crisis, and repression has obvious negative effects on refugee households, and impedes UNRWA’s ability to deliver vital services.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable meeting in a very enjoyable setting. I think all of the participants, however, would quite gladly trade pleasant conversations in the Oxfordshire countryside for substantial progress in a meaningful peace process, and the achievement of a just, lasting, and mutually-acceptable resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.

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NOTE: It would seem that a lot of the old Minster Lovell meeting reports are no longer available at the Chatham House website (and show up as broken links) because of a recent website migration. Hopefully they’ll fix this soon.