Oct 4th 2013

Negotiating Under The Shadow Of The Palestinian Refugees

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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 as 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.

The problem of the Palestinian refugees has generally been discussed in context of the moral imperative of the “right of return” and is based on subjective judgment of right and wrong.

The circumstances that precipitated the refugee problem, as seen from the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ vantage points, weighed heavily in shaping two diametrically opposing perceptions between the two sides.

From the Palestinians’ perspective, immediately following the establishment of Israel in May 1948, it 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).

This scenario has been embedded in the Palestinian psyche and reinforced by consistent and methodical public narratives by Palestinian leaders to perpetuate their plight, and by the Arab states that used the refugees for domestic consumption to cover up their own internal shortcomings.

What has further aggravated the Palestinian refugees is the subsequent and frequent violence between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, which created another wave of refugees.

Moreover, the Israeli settlements are seen as a deliberate plan to deny the refugees even the prospect of returning to any part of Palestinian land.

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 and 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.

Moreover, Israel insists that the return of any significant number of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper would obliterate the Jewish identity of the state. At any rate, the claim of the right of return is based on the non-binding UNGA Resolution 194, passed in 1948.

In the search for a solution there are several other critical factors that must be carefully considered.

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 over 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, in which both UNRWA and the Arab states have continuing interests in maintaining.

Third, while the Palestinian authorities understand that Israel will never accept the return of any significant number of Palestinian refugees, they continue to foster the perception that the Palestinian refugees have a birthright impervious to time.

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…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 [emphasis added]” (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 find 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 US 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.

As in previous tentative agreements, Israel should allow between 20,000-25,000 Palestinians to settle in Israel over a period of 4-5 years under the framework of family reunification.

In addition, regardless of how uncanny this may seem today, as a gesture of good will, Israel should leave intact many of the settlements that they will eventually evacuate (through a mutual agreement with the PA) for some of the refugees to inhabit. In addition, Israel could offer technical and logistical support to assist the Palestinians.

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 theWest 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.

Fifth, America’s strategic interest in the Middle East is extremely important and successive American administrations have been relentless in persuading both the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement.

Due to its prominence and influence, along with its ability to participate in funding any solution to the refugees, both sides look at the US 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 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.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "The ideas behind MMT [=Modern monetary theory] were mainly developed in the 1970s, notably by Warren Mosler, an American investment fund manager, who is also credited with doing much to popularise it. However, there are many threads that can be traced further back, for instance to an early 20th-century group called the chartalists, who were interested in explaining why currencies had value. These days, prominent supporters of MMT include L Randall Wray, who teaches regular courses on the theory at Bard college in Hudson, New York state. Another academic, Stephanie Kelton, has gained the ear of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Democrat US presidential candidate Joe Biden, providing theoretical justification for expanding government spending."
Jul 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So we are left with herd immunity and viable treatments as the world’s only realistic near term solution. Sweden has been roundly criticized and shunned by its neighbors for embracing herd immunity at the outset of the pandemic. It has paid a price for having done so based on accelerated infection and death rates. But while the jury will remain out for some time to come about the wisdom of having done so, Sweden may prove to have been ahead of the curve in its approach. Herd immunity is an option that should be seriously considered by the world’s governments, for a safe and effective vaccine could be many years away, and may not be achieved at all. PICTURE: Daniel Wagner.
Jul 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "The war on Yemen begun in 2015 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been a failure militarily and a vast drain on resources that, in the age of Covid-19, neither country can any longer afford. Not only has the war been Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, it has inflicted untold human damage on Yemenis. UNICEF has a new report out warning that millions of Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation. Yemen, with a population of about 28 million (think Texas), is one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, with a citizen population of some 21 million, is one of the richest. The United Arab Emirates, with a citizen population of a little over 1 million, is likewise very rich. Both have waged a high-tech air war on the indigenous Yemeni Houthis, but in the past year have pitched their Sunni proxies against one another."
Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."