Refugee issue could sink peace talks

JERUSALEM, Jan. 16 (JTA) — After sitting on the back burner for 52 years, the issue of Palestinian refugees has come to a boil.

Gone are the days when compromise proposals — including reparations or limited family reunification programs — seemed to offer a way around the issue.

Since the start of the peace process, Israeli officials dismissed maximalist Palestinian statements on the “right of return” as rhetoric to placate the masses, hinting that negotiators took a more conciliatory tone in private meetings.

But as on other issues — Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the 1967 borders — it appears that the extreme statements the Palestinians have made all along demanding the right of return accurately reflect their position.

Palestinian officials now say there will be no peace accord unless Israel agrees to allow refugees and their descendants — potentially some 5 million people, according to Palestinian estimates — to return to the homes they abandoned in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

Even the most dovish Israelis reject this, saying it basically spells the end of the Jewish state. Anyone who calls for the right of return, they say, essentially has not accepted Israel’s right to exist, which supposedly was the underpinning for the peace process.

Given the standoff on the issue, an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord seems unlikely unless one side changes its position radically.

For years, the demand for the right of return was obscured by what appeared to be the Palestinians’ main goal — achieving international acceptance for an independent Palestinian state. This, it was believed, would finally fulfill the 1947 U.N. partition plan’s vision of “two states for two peoples.”

Since the Oslo peace process began in 1993, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has spoken of resettling refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not in Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheba and other places in integral Israel.

The Oslo formula deferred the refugee issue and other difficult problems to final-status negotiations, believing that the two sides would have established enough trust by then to solve them amicably.

In 1995, Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo accords, reached an understanding about the refugees with Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen.

Under their informal understanding, the refugees would be allowed in unlimited numbers into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but not into Israel.

For years, Israel has talked of accepting limited numbers of refugees — perhaps as many as 100,000 — in the framework of a family reunification program. In addition, as many as 150,000 Palestinians are believed to have settled in Israel since the start of the peace process, illegally overstaying their work permits or marrying Israeli Arabs.

Beilin and Abbas also agreed that a newly created state of Palestine would be entitled to grant a passport to every Palestinian, even those living abroad, remedying the Palestinian refugees’ stateless status.

In essence, the two found a way to pay lip service to the principle of the right of return without actually implementing it.

Abbas quickly disavowed the “Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement,” however, and Palestinian officials now say the understanding has no bearing on the refugee issue.

At the least, Palestinian officials say, Israel should recognize the Palestinians’ right to return to their former homes, with the expectation that many refugees may decide that returning is impractical.

Given the Palestinians’ insistence on maximalist positions, however, Israelis increasingly are wary of a wink-and-a-nod understanding on such an existential issue.

At issue, Israeli commentators say, is whether there will indeed be two states for two people, or whether the Palestinians will insist on one-and-a-half states for themselves.

Justifying his stance, Arafat recently said angry refugees would assassinate him if he compromised.

Most Israeli Arabs support the Palestinian position.

“Of course, we demand that the refugees be allowed to return,” said Taher Najib, 25, an actor and resident of the Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm.

“Why should a new immigrant from Russia become a citizen of Israel, and my aunt in a refugee camp in Lebanon is deprived of the same right?” he asked.

After the 1948 war, those Palestinians who remained in Israel were thankful that they could stay in what they call their homeland. Their children focused on their status in the Jewish state, demanding equal rights.

But now, the third generation of Israeli Arabs is demanding the full implementation of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which stated in 1948 that Palestinian refugees should have the right of return or be given compensation.

Moreover, many Israeli Arabs demand their own right to return to homes they fled in 1948, often in villages that no longer exist. Many Israeli Arabs continue to depict themselves as “displaced persons” half a century after Israel’s founding, though their new homes are often less than a mile from their former homes.

Any agreement on refugees with the Palestinian Authority will not resolve Israeli Arab grievances, they now insist.

Israeli Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi, a former Arafat adviser, believes that while the refugee issue should be left for negotiations, Israel should at least “accept its moral and legal obligation to accept responsibility for creating the refugee problem.”

A project of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals under the auspices of Harvard University failed to find common ground on the issue. While the Israeli intellectuals were willing to accept that Israel had a practical, but not moral, responsibility for creating the refugee problem, discussions broke down when the Palestinian side refused to accept any measure of responsibility for the situation.

For his part, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has acknowledged the pain and suffering of Palestinian refugees — the boldest statement yet on the subject by an Israeli prime minister — but said recently that if the Arab world had not tried to destroy Israel when it was first founded, the refugee problem would not have been created.

Palestinian writer Salem Jubran told JTA this week that most Palestinian officials “don’t want to admit that the right of return cannot be implemented.”

“They will pay lip service to the idea, but they realize that no government in Israel will survive” if it accepts the right of return for the millions of refugees.

“There is nothing more just than the right of return,” said Jubran. “I painfully realize that it cannot be implemented, but I am waiting for the moral gesture of Israel that will cope with this terrible loss of a homeland.

“The more you advance in age, the more you ache when you visit the places that used to be home. People cry out for their roots,” he said.

In the past, some Israeli officials said Jews who left property behind when they fled Arab countries should receive compensation if Palestinian refugees are compensated.

Jubran rejected this idea.

“I do not believe that one should be tied to the other,” he said. “Let the Palestinians be compensated. If Israelis feel that they have legitimate demands from Arab governments, let them present those demands, regardless of solving the Palestinian issue.”

Jubran is confident that once other crucial issues such as settlements and Jerusalem are solved, the refugee issue will not be a stumbling block.

He believes that if Arafat can win reparations for them, the refugees will accept a deal that does not involve their right of return.

Tibi agrees.

“If Arafat tells the refugees that this is the best deal he was able to reach, they will accept it,” he said. “But they will take it only from Arafat and no one else.”

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