Negotiating Under the Shadow of Palestinian Refugees
One of the main issues that Israelis and Palestinians are struggling with in the ongoing negotiations is the Palestinian refugee problem. Although in previous negotiations in 2000 and 2008-2009 both sides agreed on certain modalities that would permit only a small number (25,000-30,000) of refugees to return to Israel, the agreement failed because it was encumbered by other conflicting issues, especially Israel’s national security concerns.
Since then, Israel’s insistence on maintaining the Jewish identity of the state and the shifting demographics make the return of any significant number of refugees to Israel or even the principle of the right of return simply impossible.
From the Palestinians’ perspective, immediately following the establishment of Israel in May 1948, the Jewish state embarked on a forceful and systematic expulsion of nearly 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland (Palestine). The Palestinians recall these events as “the catastrophe” (Al Nakba).
What has further aggravated the Palestinian refugee problem is the subsequent and frequent violence between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, which created another wave of refugees.
Sixty-five years later, the Palestinians still see the right of return as a moral imperative that must trump all other considerations, regardless of any changes on the ground.
Israel disputes the circumstances that precipitated the refuge problem. From its vantage point, the UN partition called for the establishment of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. The Israelis accepted the plan, the Palestinians rejected it, and seven Arab states invaded the nascent country and were subsequently defeated.
The Israelis further argue that the Arab states called on the Palestinians to move out of harm’s way during the 1948 war, leave their homes in return for the spoils after the defeat of the Israelis.
The Israeli position is generally predicated on the fact that in times of war, many people end up being displaced and end up settling elsewhere, especially when the conditions in their country of origin have changed so dramatically.
First, both Israelis and Palestinians have created a biased historical account that corresponds to their claims as to what actually precipitated the Palestinian exodus. While Israel claims that the Palestinians were encouraged to leave by the Arab states, the Palestinians insist that they were forced to leave by Israel.
Second, whereas more than 700,000 Palestinians fled Palestine in 1948, their “number,” according to UNRWA, has swelled to nearly five million since 1948. A refugee’s legal status was treated as an inheritance to be bequeathed from father to son, something which both UNRWA and the Arab states have continuing interests in maintaining.
Fourth, in the peace talks in 2000 and in 2008, the Palestinians agreed to repatriate 20,000-25,000 refugees under family reunification over a few years, while insisting that the “principle” of the right of return be enshrined in any peace agreement. Israel rejected that on the grounds that such a clause would leave it vulnerable to future claims. Thus, self-preservation must trump the moral imperative of the right of return, however just it may be.
The political philosopher Leo Strauss observed that an extreme situation is “a situation in which the very existence or independence of a society is at stake,” and that in such a situation, “there may be conflicts between what the self-preservation of society requires and the requirements of commutative and distributive justice. In such situations, and only in such situations, it can justly be said that the public safety is the highest law” (Natural Right and History, p. 160).
The right of return will continue to be a major obstacle in peace negotiations unless Israel and the Palestinian leadership accept the changing realities which in fact lend themselves to finding a solution.
Framework For a Solution
The humanitarian crisis of the Palestinian refugees should come to an end; their rights ought to be addressed justly through resettlement and compensation. All parties involved — the Palestinians themselves, Israel, the Arab states, the U.S. and the EU — need to facilitate a solution not only for the refugees’ sake but because a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves their best national interests.
First, for Israel, reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is becoming increasingly more urgent. Israel’s growing isolation, its concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the fear over the explosive situation in Syria, and the rapidly changing demographics in favor of the Palestinians have convinced many Israelis that the time to end the conflict has come.
Nothing will demonstrate a greater humanitarian overture by Israel than making such a direct contribution to help the Palestinians in this herculean task.
Second, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians want an end to the occupation. The PA as well as Hamas’ leadership know only too well the public sentiment in this regard, but for too long held onto extreme positions which run contrary to the wishes of ordinary Palestinians.
The PA and Hamas know that time is running out in this current untenable situation, and they know they must provide the refugees the prospect of a better future, give them hope and opportunities, and above all restore their human dignity.
The PA must now gradually but consistently begin to change its public rhetoric and emphasize that Palestinian refugees can exercise their right of return to their homeland—in the West Bank and Gaza, the newly-established independent Palestinian state. Many Palestinians are aware that the right of return has been reduced to a principle rather than a real possibility, provided the promise of resettlement and compensation is credible.
Third, more than any time before, nearly all Arab states have come to the conclusion that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines their national interests, and they no longer see Israel as the enemy.
Moreover, weary of the rise Islamic extremism, which is sweeping the Middle East, and Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, they now consider settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieving rapprochement with Israel as central to regional stability. This further explains their support of the Obama’s Administration efforts to resume the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Such a solution must be consistent with the 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem,” as well as with the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.” The Arab states should also provide logistical and organizational support while promoting a new narrative regarding the “right of return” to a newly established Palestinian state.
Fourth, the EU has a special interest in seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come to an end. The EU imports much of its oil from the Middle East and because of its proximity has a vested interest in the region’s stability.
The EU has all along played a significant role in aiding the Palestinian refugees and contributed the largest sum of money for their rehabilitation, health care, and education. The EU is uniquely suited to utilize its economic resources to take the lead in raising the funds needed, perhaps in excess of $10 billion, for resettlement and compensation.
Due to its prominence and influence, along with its ability to participate in funding any solution to the refugees, both sides look at the U.S. as the ultimate arbiter who can contribute appreciably to a solution for the refugees, and will continue to play a pivotal role in their resettlement and compensation in the context of a comprehensive peace.
At this juncture in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, little is left to the imagination. The bitter or sweet reality of coexistence is here to stay. A resolution to the refugee problem is now possible. It is time to put an end to the Palestinian refugees’ plight and restore their human dignity.