Recent statements by Israeli government members, debates in the Knesset, and press reports by Israeli journalists have shed some light on what will be the official Israeli starting position in the upcoming final status negotiations on the Palestinian refugee question. (For a good summary, see also Aluf Benn, political analyst in Ha'aretz newspaper, 12 October 99).
1. The Issue of Israeli Responsibility for the Massive Eviction of Palestinians in 1948:
The Israeli government, especially its Labor and Meretz ministers and supportive liberal intellectual circles, have launched a first trial balloon to prepare the Israeli public for the fact, that Israel will have to accept some responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem in the course of the final status negotiations. Prime Minister Barak's reference, in his recent Knesset speech (Oct. 4-99), to regret - but not accept guilt and moral responsibility - for the suffering caused to the Palestinian people; Education Minister Yossi Sarid's initiatives at reforming the Israeli history curriculum (commemoration of the massacre of Kufr Qassem; new history school books that correctly reflect the military strength of the Zionist forces and the Israeli army in the war of 1948); and, Knesset debates about the need to publicly denounce the massacres of Kufr Qassem and Deir Yassin - all these are part of the new Israeli experiment aimed at preparing the public for the new official line. This new official Israeli line by no means implies that the government and its negotiators will accept direct and moral responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee issue. Israel will, however, be ready to recognize "objective" and "symbolic" responsibility in form of a non-committal general statement of regret as part of a final status agreement.
2. The Issue of the Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return
The Israeli starting position will be a total rejection of any refugee return to Israel's sovereign territory. The Israeli government insists that this is one of its red lines in the final status negotiations. Based on recent indications given by the prime minister, Israel may, however, relinquish its old demand to limit refugee return to Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is not much of a compromise, because the absorptive capacity of these areas is extremely limited. Current economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is barely able to sustain the existing population at present growth-rates. Prospects for increased access to labor markets and movement of goods with the long-delayed "safe passage" between the two areas are slim, while the construction of a new Erez (Gaza)-style checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem will further obstruct movement between the southern and northern West Bank and limit economic growth.
3. The Issue of Refugee Compensation and Rehabilitation
The Israeli position holds that most of the refugees should be rehabilitated where they now reside - in the PA areas, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon. Since Israel rejects direct and moral responsibility for the creation of the refugee issue, it also rejects accountability for the future settlement. Refugee rehabilitation and compensation should become the task of a new international body, in which Israel will, due to financial constraints, be no more than a symbolic member. The new international body will be responsible for raising up to US $670 billion for refugee rehabilitation and compensation and implementation. While Israel is not planning on sharing the costs of refugee rehabilitation and compensation, it will try - as part of the final status agreement with the PLO - to impose major conditions on the operation of the international mechanism:
a) No to personal compensation to original property owners; compensation must be paid as blocks sums to states, currently refugee host states, and the PA;
b) A compensation agreement must be final and extinguish further claims;
c) Israel must be able to influence the mechanism for the allocation of funds, as a lever for political and economic pressure; and,
d) UNRWA must be dismantled and replaced by the new international body. (This is because UNRWA's mandate is based on UN Resolution 194, providing for the refugees right of return, and because of the strong Palestinian involvement and sense of ownership in this international agency.)
In addition to trying to define the terms of refugee rehabilitation and compensation, Israel already announced that it will be ready to share the profits deriving from this huge international venture: Israeli companies will offer their services to future rehabilitation projects, particularly in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip…
4. The Issue of Jewish Compensation Claims against Arab States:
Although many Israeli politicians and academics continue to raise the issue of Jewish counter claims in public discussions about Palestinian refugee compensation, it appears that the Israeli government and its negotiators have dropped the idea of raising Jewish claims against Arab states in the framework of the final status negotiations with the PLO. Israeli officials may be heeding the advice of legal experts who have frequently warned that raising Jewish claims against third parties in the official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would open the pandora box of Palestinian and Arab counter claims, and might not even be supported by the organizations representing the claims of Iraqi and North African Jews themselves. We thus witness a repetition of the experience of the 1978 Camp David Agreement, in which Israel also abstained from presenting Jewish claims against Egypt for similar reasons.
In brief, Israel's starting position on the Palestinian refugee question offers the following:
- a non-committal statement of regret;
- the international community is expected to finance refugee rehabilitation and compensation;
- Israel will not share the costs, but some of the profits deriving from the international effort.
The Israeli position completely neglects international law and practice, including the principle of refugee choice, which have become standard guidelines for tackling refugee problems world wide. It by-passes the body of UN Resolutions passed in particular for the Palestinian case. The current Israeli stand is thus very much in accordance with the informal understandings reached between Yossi Beilin/Israel and Abu Mazen/PLO already in 1995. Although Palestinian officials, including Abu Mazen himself, have since denied the existence of a secret agreement, Israel continues to push for a solution of the refugee question along these lines. It is encouraged to do so by foreign governments, the United States, Sweden, a.o., who continue to express their support of the so-called Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement.
Of course the Israeli leadership is worried about the fact that the PLO might not be willing to make these enormous concessions. However, Israel argues, without these concessions a final status agreement with the Palestinians will not be possible. PLO Chairman Arafat will be asked to deliver, and five million refugees are to silently fall in line.