Palestinian Refugee Question in the Final Status Negotiations: Position and Strategy of the Palestinian Negotiating Team

BADIL Interview with  Daoud Barakat, Negotiations Coordinator for the Refugee Issue/Deputy Head of the PLO Department for Palestinian Refugee Affairs, 21-9-99 

BADIL: The opening ceremony of the final status negotiations took place on 13 September 1999, the sixth anniversary of the Oslo Accords. In fact, this was the second opening ceremony, after the first attempt, opened in May 1996, led nowhere. According to reports in the Israeli press, the talks have been delayed due to the Jewish holidays in September, the need to appoint a new legal advisor to the Israeli delegation, and there is talk about an Israeli-Palestinian controversy about the site of the final status talks. So what is the situation? When will the actual negotiations start?  

Daoud Barakat: According to the Wye Agreement and the recent Sharm al-Sheikh Memorandum between the two sides, final status negotiations are to begin immediately. Until today, the Palestinian side has not received any information from the Israeli delegation. So there is no date fixed yet and the venue and the agenda are still unknown. 

Q. It appears that the Israelis are not in a hurry? 

A. No, I believe that they are eager to start the negotiations and to reach a framework agreement by February 2000. They want to meet in order to explore the Palestinian position and to see what is possible. 

Q. What about the PLO and the Palestinian delegation? Are you ready to start?  

A. The Palestinian negotiation team is ready. It is composed of a five-member High Commission, which is to supervise the final status negotiations. Two or three additional members may eventually join the High Commission, if other Palestinian factions, PFLP, DFLP, and the People’s Party, are ready to share in the process. The actual negotiations on the various final status issues, Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty and borders, and settlements, will be conducted by sub-teams composed of politicians and experts. 

Q. So the sub-team that will negotiate on the refugee question has already been formed?  

A. Yes, there are names, but the final composition is not yet official. 

Q. Now let’s talk about the major new element introduced to the mechanism of the final status talks by the recent Wye/Sharm al-Sheikh Memorandum: the framework agreement to be achieved by February 2000.  What exactly is a framework agreement? What could it look like?  

A. The idea of the framework agreement was initially proposed by the Israeli side. It was accepted by us, because both sides feel that we cannot start negotiations on the final status issues without having a principled agreement on what is included and how the issues will be raised. What such a framework agreement could look like concretely is, of course, unknown. It is currently under discussion between the Palestinian negotiators. As we see it, there are two possibilities: a) a framework agreement presenting a vision of the future Palestinian-Israeli relations, or b) a kind of declaration of principles about how the final status issues are to be addressed. But of course, this is how we discuss things among us. We haven’t received any indication about how the Israeli side intends to deal with this matter. 

Q. Another point – also raised in the press by various Israeli politicians – is the idea of trying to achieve a framework agreement, or a final status agreement, even if agreement is not reached on all the issues. Peres, for example, proposed to delay talks about the most difficult issues, Jerusalem and the refugee question, and to try to reach an agreement first on the easier issues. What do you think about this proposal?  

A. My opinion is that all the issues of the final status negotiations are difficult. I don’t feel that the issues of water resources or borders are easy questions. It doesn't make sense to think that any of them is an easy question. 

Q. Let’s move on to the Palestinian negotiation strategy. What has been prepared and what can you tell us about how the Palestinian delegation will open the final status negotiations?  

A. As a first step, the Palestinian delegation will present to the Israelis our principles underlying any future solution of the historical conflict. In regards to the refugee issue, we will state clearly that there will be no peace agreement between the PLO and Israel, unless an agreement for a just solution of the refugee question is achieved. The term “just solution” will be defined as the Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return as outlined in UN Resolution 194. Once agreement is achieved on the principles, the Palestinian delegation will be ready to discussion modalities regarding implementation. The implementation of these principles will require a lot of work, many studies and plans, experts, time tables, assistance by international organizations, etc. After all, we are dealing with a historical conflict, and implementation of any settlement may take a long time. 

Q. Given the situation that an Israeli rejection of the principles presented by the Palestinian delegation is very likely, what is the scenario for dealing with a situation where final status negotiations enter a deadlock at a very early stage?  

A. There will be no Palestinian scenarios dealing with Israeli rejections of principles. Negotiation didn't start. We are going to the negotiation table with open minds, still our hopes are that the Israelis will conduct themselves positively regarding those different issues. 

Q. Ever since the 1991 Madrid Conference and throughout the Oslo process, all sides involved, the United States, Europe, Israel, Arab states and the PLO, have been extremely interested in the success of these negotiations. There will be strong international pressure to ensure that the final status negotiations won’t end in failure. Aren’t you afraid, that the main target of this pressure will be the Palestinian side, as the weakest side in the formula? How will the Palestinian delegation and the PLO deal with a situation where it will be pressured to make concessions on its principles?  

A. I don’t think that it will be so easy to pressure the Palestinian delegation into making concessions on the principled issues. We speak about a historical conflict here, and all sides are familiar with the parameters of the conflict, even the Israelis. After all, the agreed-upon legal basis for the historical settlement is UN Resolution 242 and 338. Israel accepted the implementation of these resolutions with Egypt and Jordan and is going to do so with Syria and Lebanon. The Palestinians are no less than any other country.  

Q. You just mentioned UN Resolutions 242 and 338 as the being the basis for the final status agreement. How does UN Resolution 194 and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return fit into this framework? Many Palestinian critiques, in particular refugees, understand that this legal framework of the Oslo negotiations actually excludes UN Resolution 194 and the right of return.  

A. UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 calls for the Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories it occupied in the 1967 war. The same UN Resolution includes a paragraph, [2(b)] which calls for “a just solution of the Palestinian refugee question”. Now, since UN Resolution 242 is part of an organic body of international law and UN resolutions and not an isolated decision, the definition of what is considered “a just solution for the Palestinian refugee question” here is clear. It is the earlier UN Resolution 194, i.e. the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property, if they wish to do so and are ready to live in peace with their neighbors. And their right to receive compensation in case they do not want to return home, as well as compensation for damage caused to them and their property. UN Resolution 194 is an integral part of UN Resolution 242. At one of our recent seminars, we were given a profound legal expertise on this issue by John Quigley, a distinguished US expert in international law. I have no doubt that Israeli legal experts will reach the same conclusion once they study the subject. Moreover and as a matter of fact, Israel has never challenged the validity of UN Resolution 194. Israel only argues that its implementation is no longer possible, for lack of space, etc.  
I understand the fears of the Palestinian people, and refugees in particular, because not every refugee is an expert in international law. This is why I think that once final status negotiations start, there should be a broad and clear Palestinian public information campaign explaining the Palestinian negotiation positions and strategy. There should be press conferences, public meetings, and brochures, because refugees have the right to know and understand, and because the Palestinian negotiators will need public support. 

Q. Since the Palestinian public information campaign has not yet started, there are many fears, stories, and rumors about secret concessions already being made by the Palestinian leadership and about agreements being signed behind closed doors. There is, for example, the talk about a new resettlement scheme for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon according to which they should receive Palestinian passports in exchange for the Lebanese government granting them permanent residency in Lebanon. Talks about this proposal were reported recently by al-Bayan newspaper.  

A. This is total nonsense. A large number of our 4.5 million UNRWA registered and unregistered refugees have obtained citizenship and a passport of one of the countries of exile. Citizenship and passports have nothing to do with the identity and the status of Palestinian refugees - there is no connection. Otherwise we would have to forget about all our refugees in, let’s say, Germany, and they would have to forget about their rights and properties in their homeland. Of course, the Palestinian state, once established, will also offer Palestinian passports to all the refugees in exile. This does not mean that their rights as refugees will be surrendered. 

Q. There are also rumors about a proposal of partial refugee return, i.e. the return of a certain group of refugees to a designated area in Israel. The example raised was the return of Gaza refugees to the Naqab…  

A. There will always be Palestinian researchers who make all kinds of proposals, nobody can prevent them from doing so. This does not mean that this represents the Palestinian negotiation position. 

Q. Also the rumor about secret resettlement schemes with the Arab Gulf States and Iraq, where US diplomats proposed to lift the boycott in exchange for an Iraqi agreement to accept a certain number of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon…  

A. These resettlement schemes are old-new ideas. The latest version was presented by Donna Arzt, in a research commissioned by an official US body [Council on Foreign Relations]. She proposes that Palestinian refugees should be absorbed according to a quota system in various countries. Canada is mentioned there, also Iraq. However, all of this is pure intellectual exercise. According to my knowledge, no such proposals have been raised to Iraqi officials, and in the Gulf states they don’t want to have Palestinians anyway. And then, of course, such a scheme would require the support and participation of the Palestinian side, which will not happen. 

Q. And what about President Arafat’s speech to the Arab League and his interview reported by an-Nahar, in which he talked about the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip?  

A. Yes, I am aware of it. He spoke of the refugees' right to return to Palestine, he never uses the term West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestine for him means the geographical and historical homeland. You may have heard about a study done by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. It published a projection of Palestine in the year 2005. The study mentions that the Bureau of Statistics expects by then to be dealing with 500,000 Palestinian returnees to the state of Palestine who are not necessarily refugees. They are all kinds of people who come to live in the Palestinian state. However, Ha’aretz journalist Danny Rubinstein immediately picked up this number and wrote an article on how this represents a realistic expectation for refugee return. This is how rumors are created. What we really need is more trust between our people and the negotiators. 

Q. You surely know that there are Palestinian politicians, Ministers of the PA, who give statements to the Israeli and international press suggesting a Palestinian readiness for concessions on the refugees’ right of return. Don’t you think that they too are a source of rumors among the public?  

A. Of course there are such Palestinians who give their opinion. We have no means to oblige them. We can only appeal to them not to undermine our negotiating position. But I suggest we handle this as the Israelis do. We should say that, yes, of course, there are different opinions, everybody can say what s/he thinks, but this does not reflect our official position. 

Q. Given the fears and rumors among the Palestinian public, how would you define the role of Palestinian refugees, their organizations and institutions, in this era?  

A. I would like to see them organizing information campaigns, public meetings, protest activities, and petitions in which they clearly state their demands. This in order to exert pressure on the Israeli public opinion, also on international public opinion and on the Palestinian negotiators. We are very much in need of this role. 

Q. And how would you describe the role and tasks of all those people and organizations on the international level, that would like to help protect  
the right of return of the Palestinian refugees? What should be, from now on, the priorities of the international solidarity movement with the Palestinian people in general, and refugees in particular?  

A. All of these individuals and organizations should make clear to their communities that this is the time of truth; that what is ahead of us is an effort to reach an agreement, which will lead to the settlement of a historic conflict. They should inform their public about past and present facts and legal parameters of the Palestinian refugee question. Also the international standards for resolving refugee problems like ours should be emphasized. After all, such standards exist, and the Palestinian refugee question is not so different from other, current refugee problems, in which the international community has interfered with a strong position. Take only the example of Kosova, and now East Timor. There refugees have been used to justify even military interventions. So why the international community should not take a stand also on the Palestinian refugee question? 

Q. You mean to say that you are not completely pessimistic about the outcome of the final status negotiations?  

A. I mean to say that I don’t know whether Israel will accept a solution which we consider just and fair, but I know that the Palestinians will have to work hard in order to try to achieve this. 

Daoud Barakat was born in western Jerusalem in 1942. He served with the PLO between 1972 and 1996 in Swizterland, Austria, and most recently as Palestinian Ambassador to Russia. He is currently living in Ramallah.  

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