Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is the Palestinian "Right of Return" an Unbridgeable Obstacle to a Two-State Settlement?

On May 26, the online version of Dissent magazine published an article by Michael Walzer, “What Does Netanyahu Think He Is Doing?”  In it, Walzer asserts that there can be no two state settlement unless the Palestinians give up the right of return—which is clearly correct—but that “no Palestinian has even hinted at a willingness to give up the right of return”—which is demonstrably wrong.

This morning, Dissent online published my letter of rebuttal: http://dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=490.  Here it is:

The early rejectionism of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gradually evolved, until their official decision in 1988 to accept a new partition of Palestine and a two-state solution as the definitive settlement of its claims. Following the 1988 Palestinian decision, the Israeli news magazine New Outlook interviewed leading PLO officials and concluded that they would probably agree to a settlement of the refugee issue on the basis of a token return to Israel, combined with large-scale international economic compensation for resettlement of the refugees in the Palestinian or other Arab states.

Shortly afterward, this assessment was essentially confirmed in a highly important and authoritative article, “Lowering the Sword,” by Abu Iyad, then second-in-command to Arafat (Foreign Policy, Spring 1990). In an interview with the journal editors in the same issue, Abu Iyad stated the following:

We accept that a total return is not possible….we recognize that Israel would not want to accept large numbers of Palestinian returnees who would tip the demographic balance against the Jewish population.... Nonetheless, we believe it is essential that Israel accept the principle of the right of return or compensation with the details of such a return to be left open for negotiation....We shall for our part remain flexible regarding its implementation. [emphases added]

The particular significance of this statement is that the bulk of the evidence indicates that from that point forward, Abu Iyad’s careful formulation has remained the true bottom line of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and all other moderate Palestinian leaders.

After the Oslo agreements of 1993, Arafat himself on most occasions—but not always—signaled his willingness to abandon a literal right of return. During and soon after the Camp David negotiations of 2000, Arafat’s signals were inconsistent. On the one hand, during the negotiations Arafat acknowledged to Bill Clinton that Israel could not be expected to absorb hundreds of thousands—or more—of Palestinian refugees, and told the president that “we have to find a happy medium between the Israeli’s demographic worries and our own concerns.” On the other hand, soon after the negotiations broke down Arafat wrote to Clinton that “we cannot accept a proposal…that does not guarantee the right of the refugees to return to their homes.”

Which was the real Arafat position? In an important 2001 article, Ron Pundak, a leading Israeli analyst who had played a major role in the Oslo negotiations and in the Israeli preparations for Camp David, wrote that, regardless of Arafat’s apparent inflexibility on the right of return, “in practice the real Palestinian position on this issue during the negotiations was far more moderate and pragmatic.”

Pundak’s assessment has been borne out, for the evidence of Arafat’s willingness to compromise on the right of return—and, even more so, that of other Palestinian leaders—is quite strong. For example, in December 2000 Arafat wrote to Clinton that the Palestinians were “prepared to think flexibly and creatively about the mechanism for implanting the right of return.” Then, in a 2002 New York Times op-ed, Arafat wrote: “We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees…must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.”

Significantly, Arafat reiterated this position to an Israeli audience shortly before he died in 2004, when in an interview with Haaretz he stated that he “definitely” understood that Israel would remain a Jewish state, and therefore it was “clear and obvious” that the refugee problem would have to be solved in a manner that was consistent with that reality.

Most importantly, the true bottom line of many of the top PLO, Fatah, and PA leaders was made clear in the Geneva Accord in 2003. As early as 1995, Mahmoud Abbas, then a high official in the PLO who was known as Abu Mazen, had coauthored an agreement with Yossi Beilin of Israel (the “Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement”) that set forth the general principles on which the highly detailed Geneva Accord was constructed. Then, in 2003, an unofficial but high-level Palestinian delegation headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PA official known to be very close to Arafat, met with an Israeli delegation headed by Beilin, who was then part of the Ehud Barak government of Israel and had been the head Israeli negotiator at the Taba conference in January 2001. Various analyses and Palestinian as well as Israeli memoirs have made it clear that the Geneva Accord negotiations could not have been held without the (at least tacit) support of Arafat; in addition, Ahmed Qureia, the then-prime minister of the PA, stated that he “personally supported” the Geneva Accord.

Had the Accord been implemented, it would have simultaneously solved the two most difficult Israeli-Palestinian issues: Jerusalem and the right of return. Instead of recognizing such a “right,” the Accord stated that the refugee issue would be solved in accordance with a number of UN resolutions, the language of which is complicated, but which was understood by both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make any Palestinian return to Israel conditional upon Israeli consent.

Beilin subsequently stated that while the Palestinians were not asked to state officially that they were giving up the right of return, the Accord was a practical compromise solution. While Israel would “probably” admit something like 30,000 Palestinians, “everyone who reads it understands that no Palestinian refugee is going to be admitted to Israel on the basis of any ‘right’ of return.” And in his authoritative book on the Accord, The Path to Geneva, Beilin wrote: “The heart of the agreement is the concession of sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians in exchange for Israeli sovereign discretion over the number of refugees admitted to Israel, with the rest free to settle in the Palestinian state.”

The right of return issue was again central in the 2008 secret negotiations between Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. The full record of those negotiations has not been released, but there have been a number of analyses, the most detailed and apparently authoritative of which is a long article by Bernard Avishai in the February 11 New York Times Magazine, based on interviews with Olmert and Abbas. Avishai’s summary of the refugee issue—supported by other assessments—was that “both leaders agreed on the principle that a certain number of Palestinians should return, but that the governing question should be how to limit that number in a way that preserves Israel’s distinction as a state with a Jewish majority but that does not prejudice the rights of the Arab minority.…[T]he leaders agreed on the principle but disagreed about a number.”

In fact, even the numbers issue was apparently settled. Based on just-released WikiLeaks documents, the Guardian reported on January 24, 2011 that during the negotiations with Olmert in 2009, the Palestinian leaders “gave up the fight over refugees…Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families….could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement….PLO leaders also accepted Israel’s demand to define itself as an explicitly Jewish state, in sharp contrast to their public position.”

Subsequently, news stories and analyses in Haaretz confirmed the revelations in the WikiLeaks papers and added further details, particularly that the essential abandonment by the Palestinian leaders of the right of return was supported by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator; Nabil Sha’ath, the head of international relations for the PLO; and Mahmoud Abbas—who privately stated that “it would be unreasonable to expect Israel to absorb five or even one million refugees….This would be the end of the State of Israel.”

There is no doubt that the new PA-Hamas coalition agreement will make it more difficult to reach a settlement of the refugee problem, for Hamas has not demonstrated any willingness to compromise on this issue. On the other hand, on a number of occasions leading Hamas officials have signaled that they would not oppose a two-state compromise agreement that was supported by a majority of the Palestinian people. In any case, it is both unnecessary and pointless to speculate about what Hamas and the Palestinian people might or might not accept. One would think the solution would be obvious: Let Israel officially announce its full acceptance of the standard international consensus two-state settlement, which includes no unlimited Palestinian right of return but only a return of small numbers of refugees, subject to Israeli consent—and then see what happens. Only after such an Israeli offer would we find out the true bottom line of all the Palestinians.