The Palestinian Refugee Issue is Not Going to Resolve Itself

When I started getting serious about action on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the associated US foreign policy, I found it imperative to Talbieh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordanconvince people that the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail. There were the obvious critiques of the accords: the lack of any sort of human rights framework, the absence of consequences for failing to abide by conditions or fulfill agreed upon commitments, and the formal recognition of Israel without any mention whatsoever of a potential Palestinian state. But I saw an even bigger obstacle.

Conventional wisdom has it that Jerusalem is the most difficult stumbling block. But I have always maintained that it is the Palestinian refugees that were the most serious obstacle to a negotiated solution.

When various compromises were discussed about Jerusalem, they were always regarded as controversial and difficult to sell. Yet in my experience, people on both sides saw pretty clearly how a compromise could be crafted. Israel was willing, at least in the past, to permit the Islamic Waqf to continue administering the Temple Mount while official sovereignty would belong to both sides–the Old City would be divided and the border of East and West Jerusalem would be part of the agreement on borders more broadly. No one thought this would be easy, of course, but Israel appeared willing to compromise on this issue, in part because it understood that this was not just a Palestinian issue, but one that the entire Muslim population of the world had a stake in. The parameters of an agreement were visible.

When the matter of the Palestinian refugees came up on the other hand, there was a visible disconnect between the sentiments among the Palestinians, both in and outside the Occupied Territories, and the diplomatic framework that was being discussed. Many observers believed that the path forward on the refugees was clearer than that for Jerusalem, even though this was an area that Israel, no matter who was in the prime minister’s office, was going to be a lot less flexible on.

They believed that to be the case because, from available evidence, it seems that Yasser Arafat was assuring the Israelis and Americans that he was prepared to essentially sacrifice the refugees’ right of return settling for some token number returning to Israel while the rest would get some sort of compensation package and some limited option of returning to the presumed Palestinian state. This was, of course, not what he was telling the Palestinian people, to whom he continually pledged that he would not compromise on the right of return.

While many hold Arafat responsible for the disconnect between diplomacy and reality, obviously not without some justification, the real problem was the disinterest that Israeli and US diplomats routinely showed toward the Palestinian people. One need go no further than to read books by key figures such as Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller. While the complexities of Israeli politics were always dealt with in careful detail, the Palestinian side was ignored to such an extent that virtually everything you see in the writings of these and other diplomats of the day about Palestinian opinion was obtained simply by asking the Palestinian leaders. Can anyone imagine Israel being approached that way?

The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership (PLO) under Arafat was neither prepared to hold the difficult national dialogue about possible compromise on the refugee issue nor to admit to their Israeli and US interlocutors that the right of return was as core a national Palestinian value as the land itself and that public sentiment strongly opposed the sort of compromise that Israel had, not without reason, come to expect.

This held true after Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’ assumption of the leadership. In truth, even Hamas has not specifically spoken about the refugees very often, although that is largely because its agenda, unlike the PLO after the mid-1970s, remained focused on liberating all of Palestine, which would mean the refugees could simply return. The result is that the national conversation on this issue never occurred, and all through the Oslo talks, even if one believed they had any chance of going anywhere, the refugee issue hung over the table like a pendulum with a razor-sharp blade, coming nearer to splitting the table with every passing swing.

The biggest danger was that, in the case of a miracle where Israel and the Palestinians were able to agree on a lasting peace deal, the refugee issue would shatter it. In several incidents, most recently with the revelations contained in the “Palestine Papers,” confirmation of the framework around the refugees caused great concern among Palestinians.

It is not always easy for others, including myself, to fully grasp the importance of the refugee issue to Palestinians. Nor is it fully understood by others how deeply Israeli Jews fear this issue. For the Palestinians, refugees are a deeply personal as well as a national issue. After all, the accepted estimate of the number of Palestinian refugees is approximately five million, and the total global population of Palestinians is eleven million. So, pretty much every Palestinian has refugee relatives, many of them living outside the Palestinian Territories. Families, in other words, have been sundered for 66 years.

Palestine-Refugee-KeyThen there is the reality, often vastly underestimated, of how central the refugees are to Palestinian nationalism. They are as core a value as the land, Jerusalem, anything. The key to the lost home in Palestine is the overriding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and it is the symbol of the refugee.

This is not to say that some practical and negotiated agreement cannot be reached on the issue. But thus far, that hasn’t been even remotely attempted. Instead, Israel has insisted that the right of return be forfeited and their Western allies have concurred, as have, in a more circumspect fashion, many of the regional Arab leaders, Lebanon being the main exception. That makes the issue even more sensitive, if that is possible, because for most Palestinians, the framework in which the refugees have been discussed is a surrender, and one that they do not believe the PLO leadership has the authority to make (many Palestinians argue that the right of return is an individual as well as a collective right and as such cannot be negotiated away in a collective bargaining framework. There is considerable basis for this argument).

What is needed is a national conversation, and that will take time. The debates need to happen in communities, in coffee shops and in mosques as well as on the internet and in the halls of the Palestinian Authority. Over time, a general consensus of what is and is not going to be tolerable for the majority of Palestinians, including the refugees themselves, will emerge. From there, realistic negotiations on the issue can manifest.

This needs to happen because it is the only way to turn the refugee problem from a poison pill that would almost certainly torpedo any agreement into part of the solution. The Israeli public also needs to know what the Palestinians want from the right of return.

There is no subject that the Israeli Jewish public is more united and rejectionist on than the refugee issue. Outside of the radical anti-Zionist left–a small portion of the population–you will be hard pressed to find an Israeli Jew who would agree to any significant return of refugees. You’ll find it equally difficult to find an Israeli who would acknowledge any right of return. The refugees, you see, touch on the most intimate identity crisis for Israeli Jews: the fact that Israel could have only come into existence by forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out.

This “original sin” is not something that Israelis can simply live with as we in the United States can live with the legacy of slavery and the genocide of the native population here. In the US, we have left too few natives to be worried about any claims to the land, and they are far too disempowered. Slavery is considered a historical shame, but the ongoing issues of racism are largely seen by whites as the legacy of Jim Crow laws (read: apartheid) rather than of slavery. These horrific crimes are regarded by most of the white US as history, however sordid.

Israeli Jews cannot do that. No doubt, the leaders of the Zionist movement in the 1940s believed that, by now, the Palestinians would have resettled in various Arab countries and that Israel could make peace with that past in a similar way to the United States. But that view did not take into account the fact that Palestinians were going to be in refugee camps nearby, would refuse to assimilate (or be barred from it) into the countries they fled to, and would maintain a sense of national identity that kept them–much like Jews throughout the centuries–as strangers in strange lands.

The reality of the Palestinian exodus from Palestine from 1947-49 was largely known in Israel all along. In the late 1980s, Israel’s “New Historians” produced controversial, but generally accurate tomes documenting that the Palestinians did not leave of their own volition or in response to broadcasts from Arab leaders telling them to do so. They either fled or were very frequently driven from their homes.

Many Israelis are aware of all this. But, as with most nations, the people of Israel want desperately to believe in the righteousness of their country’s creation. Moreover, there is enormous fear of what the world would think if this history became more commonly known, especially in the United States and other friendly Western countries where, among supporters of Israel, this history is largely unknown or papered over with some rather incredible myths (e.g., the Palestinians of 1948–all 800,000 and more of them–just picked up and left). Even acknowledging the Palestinian right of return threatens this, creating a situation where history, even when known, produces a visceral discomfort and threatens the Jewish self-image of a just and decent people trying to finally create a home for ourselves.

By itself, that could be overcome. But for Israelis, that sensitivity is piled on top of a fear of Palestinian return that borders on hysteria. And this fear is greatly exacerbated by the lack of clarity about Palestinians’ ambitions regarding the right of return. Israeli Jews treasure, more than anything else, having a homeland where they are the majority. Having such a homeland is also very important to many Jews living in the diaspora. That importance is every bit as strong as worldwide Muslim concern over the fate of Jerusalem.

Israelis are desperately afraid that if they cease blocking the right of return, even to the extent of merely acknowledging the existence of such a right, there would be a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel, which would ultimately make Jews a distinct minority. True, many argue, Jews are doing pretty well as a minority in many countries; but many countries in the world are completely bereft of any Jewish population, especially in the Arab world. And, while they won’t name it, Jews also have the same visceral fear of Palestinians that white South Africans, whites in the US and in other places have had of those they oppressed: the fear that anger over those years of oppression will result in yet another incident of Jewish persecution.

It’s easy for me to say that the fear is born only out of prejudice and misplaced feelings, that the truly hateful among the Palestinians, like the truly hateful among the Jewish Israelis can be dealt with much more efficiently when Palestinian grievances, so long left to boil, are finally addressed. But for most Israelis and Jews in many other places, they look at the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, places where the cycle of oppression kept spinning with death greasing the wheel. Given Jewish history, it’s an understandable fear.

But it’s also a fear that must be dealt with, not pandered to. When Arafat convinced Israelis that the PLO had backed off liberating all of Palestine and would settle for the lands Israel conquered in 1967, it made a big difference in Israeli perceptions of Palestinians. Even in the toxic atmosphere of 2014, such clarity from the Palestinians on refugees would have a similar effect. This would be true even if the Palestinians’ stance turns out to be (as I believe it would if the popular will was reflected) that each and every refugee should be offered the options of return, return to a Palestinian state (if a two-state solution is ever reached) or compensation, and it is up to each to choose for her or himself. At least Israel would know what the bargaining position is.

The International Crisis Group undertook what I consider to be the first serious effort at finally taking the veil off this critical issue by releasing a report entitled, “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question,” on Oct. 9. It is a serious and pragmatic analysis of what Palestinian leaders and people can do to begin to bring this question out of the shadows and, crucially, to the center of diplomatic efforts. The recommendations include renewing and revitalizing local leadership councils in refugee camps, improving conditions for refugees as well as supporting refugees in building lives wherever they are without worrying that they are sacrificing their claims as refugees, and beginning the sort of national dialogue I have been discussing.

Now is the perfect time for such efforts, although Israel and the United States will oppose them. Even Abbas has realized that his old strategy has failed and he needs a new one. Refugees, long marginalized, have an opportunity to raise their voice and have it impact Palestinian negotiators in the future. And, despite the fact that Israelis would be vexed by such a development, it is an absolute necessity if there is ever to be a resolution to this conflict, be it one state, two state or whatever else.

This strategy will be uncomfortable for the Palestinian Authority. But it must materialize for the region to move towards substantive rather than illusionary visions of peace. We must hope that good sense can overcome fear.

Toward A New Two-State Solution

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You have to admire the tenacity of J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group. Or maybe it’s the desperation born of running out of options. In any case, if there is to be any hope for a negotiated resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, J Street, however well-intentioned, is demonstrating precisely what we must not do.

Just days after the Obama administration announced it was taking a “pause” in its efforts to broker an agreement, J Street sent out a message trying to rally the troops. In that message, they said that this moment “…is an opportunity to take stock and ask some tough questions.” Unfortunately, they make clear in the very same message that they are doing neither.

Here is what J Street refers to as “our plan”:

  • First, we’re going to urge President Obama and Secretary Kerry to stay engaged and not to walk away. Resolving this conflict remains an American and Israeli interest.
  • Second, to move forward, the Administration should put forward an American framework for a final status deal, build international support for it, and go to the parties and tell them the time has come to say yes or no to a reasonable plan for ending the conflict. So we’ll be calling for stronger American leadership, not less engagement.
  • Third, we’ll be speaking out even more strongly about the direction in which Israel is headed. Those on the farthest right of Israel’s politics have formed a “one-state caucus.” They are willing to forsake Israel’s democratic character for unending settlement expansion throughout the West Bank. That’s a choice that most of the world’s Jews disagree with and it runs counter to the values and interests of both Israel and the United States.

This plan reflects a sense of futility. There is nothing here that raises the question of why almost every round of talks for the past twenty years has ended in failure. The closest thing the U.S. can point to as a success during that period is the Wye River Agreement in 1998, when President Bill Clinton exerted personal pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, for his troubles, got Netanyahu to implement a redeployment that had already been agreed upon. Not a lot to show for over twenty years of work.

Yet J Street, in essence, advocates more of the same. The “toughest question,” and the one they don’t want to ask comes down to the internal paradox that J Street faces. On one hand, they are always advocating “robust diplomacy” on the part of the United States. On the other, J Street has consistently opposed any sort of material pressure on Israel, whether economically or diplomatically, to get them to change their policies. That they continue to hold this position goes a long way toward explaining why nothing, especially the results of Israeli-Palestinian talks, ever changes.

In 1998, Bill Clinton was able to put public pressure on Netanyahu, without having to resort to threatening U.S. military aid to Israel or really much else in the way of material pressure. But that was a different time. The reason Clinton was successful was because the specter of an Israeli Prime Minister alienating a U.S. President was a significant political problem in Israel. Indeed, it contributed significantly to Netanyahu’s defeat shortly thereafter by Ehud Barak (although, paradoxically, the right wing’s sense that Netanyahu had sold them out at Wye was at least as big a factor). In today’s Israel, as long as the people know the military relationship is intact, defying the U.S. can be a political plus, and Netanyahu has since proven that he can insult, humiliate, even spit in the proverbial face of a U.S. President without real consequence.

That’s why J Street’s prescription is so badly out of date. The rightward shift of the Israeli public since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, along with the increasing clarity in recent years of the strength of virtually unconditional Congressional support for a wide array of Israeli policies, have emboldened Israeli prime ministers. They know that the United States will not exact any penalty for Israeli defiance on matters related to the Occupation (wider regional matters may be different). If further proof were needed, the opposition from within his own party to Barack Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 provided that. It is no longer sufficient for a U.S. President to make his wishes clear; Israel will not move on the ever-deepening occupation without significant, tangible pressure. But J Street opposes any such pressure.

The “tough questions” that J Street, and other groups seeking a reasonable and non-violent end to this conflict need to answer don’t stop there. The failure of not only the latest attempt by John Kerry, but of the entire process over twenty-plus years now raises a much bigger question.

To date, there has only been one path to that sort of a solution, the two-state version as envisaged by the Oslo Accords and the subsequent evolution of events. It hasn’t worked. After twenty years, the occupation is far more entrenched; the settler population has exploded and its growth will continue to accelerate; the PLO has fallen into disarray and has lost a lot of support, but no clear alternative has presented itself; the Israeli electorate has moved sharply to the right; and Washington’s ability to pressure Israel has grown weaker with each successive president since 1992.

The byword about this process has been that there is no other choice, but this is nonsense. Not long ago, Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Officer for the CIA, suggested on this site that the two-state option was dead and new ideas, essentially variations on a one-state formula, would have to be devised.

I agree that those formulations need to be considered anew. I still don’t believe a single state will really work, but the moment demands that anyone who can make a case for any solution must be heard and taken seriously. What is most dangerous right now is falling into the comfortable trap of trying the same thing that has failed for twenty years. The only formulation that has ever been attempted was the Oslo formulation and it has failed. There is always another option. We need to find one that will work, not stubbornly cling to a fatally flawed plan that has finally died and pretend there is still even the remotest possibility that it will work.

It is precisely for this reason that I have been picking on J Street in this article: because I still believe that a two-state formulation must be found. I have nothing against a one-state outcome in principle; as long as that one state guarantees it will always offer safe sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution– the kind that didn’t exist in World War II — I’m perfectly comfortable with it. But I have no faith that it can work, as we see all around the world the collapse of and/or violent conflicts within multi-ethnic or -confessional states (Iraq, Yugoslavia, and most recently Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine, just to name a few). Given that level of doubt, and the fact that there is currently no groundswell of political support anywhere for a one-state outcome, I cannot see how it would work. But I remain open to someone showing me how the difficulties could be dealt with, as we all must consider new options in the wake of Oslo’s death.

But a new two-state concept doesn’t really have the full advantage over one state that some may contend, if they base that contention on the idea that a two-state formulation has global acceptance. That’s because any two-state formulation must scrap Oslo and start from scratch, so it would have to be sold anew. In my view, in order to succeed, a two-state formula must include the following elements, few of which were characteristic of the Oslo Process:

  • It must be based fundamentally not on Israeli security or even Palestinian freedom, but on fully equal rights – civil, human and, crucially, national – of all the people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
  • It must be based on international law, including UN Security Resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, and all other relevant international treaties.
  • It must be based on open borders and deep cooperation between the two states, rather than as much separation as possible.
  • It must not treat as legitimate “changes on the ground” that Israel has intentionally brought about to block a realistic two-state outcome, but it must also seek a path to minimize the upheaval of mass relocation of either settlers or Palestinians. An open-border system may help facilitate this.
  • It must acknowledge and respect the Palestinian refugees’ claim for return and find a way to accommodate it in a reasonable fashion that neither undermines prospects for peace nor treats the right of return as anything less than that—a right.
  • Both states must be required to produce a constitution that guarantees full and equal rights to all minorities within its borders, no matter how the state chooses to characterize itself. Such a constitution also needs to guarantee that Jews and Palestinians around the world are guaranteed that the respective states will offer them safe haven in the case of persecution.
  • Any deal will have to be enforced by the international community. Israel will hate that, and many Palestinians will see that as limiting their hard-win sovereignty. But it is extremely unlikely that these arrangements will work just because of good intentions, as Oslo proved conclusively.

That’s a basic framework that I see as workable for an equitable two-state solution. Lots of compromise on both sides, but also a practical approach that allows both Palestinians and Israelis to maintain their national identities.

Of course, I don’t expect a politically centrist, Washington-centric group like J Street to accept such a formulation. But I do expect that, if they are serious about wanting A two-state solution rather than stubbornly sticking to the failed experiment that has been referred to as THE two-state solution, they will start talking and thinking of new ideas about what such a solution will look like.

There are one-staters who advocate a secular-democratic single state. There are right-wing Israeli one-staters who advocate a single state that legally enshrines Jews as dominant above Palestinians. Those ideas are advancing today because any reasonable person understands that the Oslo process is dead and has been proven to be unworkable, and these ideas are beginning to fill that vacuum. If we want to see a two-state solution emerge, as I think we need to, we need to re-think the basis of that solution and build one that avoids all the bias and mistakes of Oslo.

J Street, as champions of the two-state solution, this is your time to show that you can truly lead. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to do so and not play scared by clinging to the only solution that has actually been tested and which led to a dead-end.