Talks in Ottawa on Refugees Make Only Incremental Progress

Last week’s multilateral peace talks here on the Middle East refugee problem were far from a raging success, according to Canadian officials.

But the talks did achieve something of a breakthrough in getting Israel for the first time to discuss the refugee problem with Palestinian negotiators.

All in all, some 38 delegations participated in the talks, including the United Nations. But Syria and Lebanon were no-shows.

Israel had refused to attend an earlier session of the multilateral working group on refugees here last May and had threatened to pull its delegation out this time around.

The Israelis objected to the inclusion of Mohammad Hallaj, by his own admission a member of the Palestine National Council, as head of the Palestinian delegation. The PNC is the Palestine Liberation Organization’s so-called parliament-in-exile, and Israeli officials have refused to sanction PLO involvement in the peace talks.

But the Israeli delegation acquiesced after it was announced that Hallaj’s membership in the PNC had in fact “lapsed” late last year.

The talks began in earnest last Thursday and focused on seven themes, according to Marc Perron, head of the Canadian delegation, who chaired both rounds of talks here as well as the opening organizational meeting in Moscow last January.

He said the parties reached “substantial agreement” on how to proceed with the first three issues: refugee-related data bases, human resource development, and vocational training and job creation.

Discussions on the fourth theme, family reunification, made little headway.

“Despite a long and serious debate, the parties were unable to reach consensus,” said Perron.

Time constraints apparently prevented the parties from continuing discussion on the other themes and “it was agreed to continue discussion of all seven themes at the next meeting of the working group,” he said.

The next round of talks is slated to take place in Norway early next year.

Despite the limited progress, Perron did not feel last week’s talks were a waste.

“We should not lose sight of what we have achieved,” he said. “For the first time in many years, key regional parties sat down together to talk about refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“We met, we talked and we will talk again,” he said. “Optimists by nature, we Canadians would consider this a beginning, not an end.”

The Israeli Embassy in Ottawa did not release a statement following Thursday’s session and later refused to comment on the talks.

But Robert Ritter, national executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee, was optimistic.

“It is our hope that the working group, with Israel’s full participation, can now concentrate on the real task of finding the means for ameliorating the suffering of refugees throughout the Middle East,” he said.

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