Beyond Utopia: Rethinking Refugees

It's been nine month since Israel-Palestinian peace talks were relaunched in Annapolis and concluding a bilateral peace agreement that will finally set the foundations for a two-state solution could not be more urgent. In fact, given current political, economic and cultural trends in the region, we just might be the last generation able to achieve it.

But there is a major snag. Under current circumstances, a comprehensive and practicable negotiated bilateral resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue is simply not possible.

Indeed, the main question now facing both the negotiating parties and the international community is whether the refugee issue should be allowed to derail the two-state solution. From an Israeli perspective the answer is a definite no, and avoiding this potentially destructive pitfall requires a radical shift in Israel’s strategic thinking: To keep the two-state solution alive, Israel should move to take the refugee issue off the negotiating table, even though this would mean giving up its longstanding goal of achieving a final, all-encompassing peace deal.

Ironically, the Palestinians have opened the door to such a bold step by presenting themselves as facilitators between Israel and the individual claims of millions of refugees rather than as their empowered representatives. Rather than aiming for a Utopian deal that puts an end to all Palestinian claims and finally terminates the conflict, Israel should focus on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and, in parallel, initiate schemes to provide compensation for refugee property, the only component of the refugee issue within its sole jurisdiction. These steps would strengthen international and domestic perceptions of Israel’s democratic and Jewish character and ameliorate the conflict environment.

For nearly two decades, Israel’s approach has been based on the notion of one comprehensive agreement encompassing all core issues and ending all grievances. It aimed to create leverage by linking the various core components, specifically trading Palestinian concessions on the “right of return” for Israeli concessions on borders and
Jerusalem; by eliminating the “right of return,” it hoped to gain international recognition of the Jewish character of the state; and, through the resolution of the refugee issue, it hoped to conclude a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that would proclaim an ‘end to the conflict’ and pave the way to a broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

However, over the last eight years, the Israeli-Palestinian environment has changed to such an extent as to render this comprehensive approach unworkable. For one, the Palestinians no longer speak with one dominant voice, greatly constraining their negotiating positions and further weakening their capacity to deliver. Another major change has been the shift from a collective conceptualization of the refugee predicament towards a focus on individually-based claims.

This, in turn, has led to spiralling expectations regarding financial compensation, immigration options and symbolic gestures, especially outside the future Palestinian state. As a result, any potential “final” settlement will likely fall significantly short of Palestinian and Arab expectations, providing ammunition for rejectionist forces.

On top of all this, the international community’s capacity to assist in implementation of a solution for the refugees is diminishing. Unlike the universal definition of refugeehood, the Palestinian definition is divorced from questions of
citizenship and/or welfare conditions; and, given the ever widening gap between the Palestinian predicament and that of the mounting population of global refugees and displaced persons, estimated today at tens of millions, how can the international community justify funnelling such a disproportionate level of resources specifically for Palestinian refugees?

We are therefore proposing that Israel should accept Palestinian claims for compensation as individually-based claims only. The big advantage would be that, with most stakeholders currently residing outside Israeli and Palestine-to-be areas, these claims need not be addressed within the framework of the permanent status agreement.

But once the refugee issue is off the permanent status radar, Israel should show its goodwill and seriousness by taking a number of practical steps: It should set up a special fund to process compensation claims for properties left in Israel by Palestinian refugees in 1948 and, at the same time, declare that while it is not willing to permit any return to areas under its sovereignty, it supports the creation of a Palestinian homeland open to the entire Palestinian diaspora, as
envisaged in the two-state solution.

By following the path we have outlined, Israel would help chart a new course for a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict and secure its Jewish, democratic and Zionist identity for generations to come.

published in the Jerusalem Post, October 13, 2008

Attorney Gilead Sher, as former prime minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff,was Israel’s co-chief negotiator at the Camp David summit in 2000 and the ensuing Taba talks and is the author of “The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach.”

Dr. Orit Gal, an expert on the political economy of conflict environments, has been involved in various Israeli-Palestinian track two processes.