Political Negotiations on the Palestinian Refugee Question
Interview with Salim Tamari
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Palestinian refugee question began with the first meeting of the Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs in 1992. After the 1993 Oslo accords, the question of the repatriation of the 1967 refugees to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip was to be dealt with immediately by a quadripartite committee composed of delegations from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the PLO. The international community was to provide financial and technical assistance for large-scale programs to improve living conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in the diaspora, and for databanks and research. Thereby, it was hoped, the ground would be prepared for the bilateral solution of the thorny question of the 1948 refugees.The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was expected to terminate its services by 1999. The Quadripartite Committee, however, has failed thus far to achieve tangible results. While the Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs is inactive and the final status negotiations are paralyzed, the refugee community itself continues to direct criticism toward, and exert political pressure on, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. On September 26, 1996, Ingrid Jaradat-Gassner interviewed Salim Tamari, director of the Center for Jerusalem Studies and member of the Palestinian delegation to the Multilateral Working Group on Refugees.
Could you give us a brief summary of the current state of affairs in the various negotiating fora?
The negotiations in all the groups are currently frozen. The Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs held its first meeting in Ottawa in July 1992. This was a result of the Madrid Conference, which had decided that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should proceed on regional, multilateral and bilateral tracks. Five working groups were thus established in a follow-up meeting of the Conference Steering Committee in Moscow, among them the Refugee Working Group. Since then, we have had eight plenary sessions and approximately 12 subcommittee meetings, called “intercessionals,” on such matters as health, data collection and family reunification. All of them concluded without major results.
Already before the change of government in Israel, it had become clear that there was a crisis, and the working group met only once. Following the Israeli elections, political negotiations between Israel and the PLO slowed. The only meeting that took place was an intercessional meeting of the Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs on databases, held in Oslo in June 1996. It produced little or no results. Decisions in the multilaterals must be based on a consensus among all the participants, i.e., 12 countries composed of the regional parties and foreign governments acting as “shepherds” of the various subagendas. This gives de facto veto power to the Israeli and Palestinian delegations, and in times of tensions between them, nothing can be accomplished. The second forum is the Quadripartite Committee on the Repatriation of the 1967 Displaced Persons, based on the Oslo Accords. This forum, composed of delegations from Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the PLO, held its first meeting in Amman in March 1995. Since then, there have been five more meetings in Haifa, Gaza, Amman and Cairo. Following the sixth -- and so far last -- meeting in Cairo on February 14, 1996, the Palestinian delegation was slightly optimistic, because we felt that we had overcome the deadlock of previous sessions by shifting the agenda. It was finally decided to suspend the futile debate about who is a displaced person and to focus on repatriation. Six existing records were identified as the basis for defining who is a 1967 displaced person, among them UNRWA records, the Egyptian population registry for Palestinian refugees after 1967, and the records of the Jordanian Department of Palestinian Affairs. The next meeting, scheduled to be held in Bethlehem on March 20, 1996, was postponed by Israel, due to the Hamas bombings. Since then, there has been no call for a new meeting.
The final status negotiations were symbolically opened in Taba in May 1995, one week before the Labor/Meretz government lost power in Israel -- maybe because it seemed important to show that the time frame set by the Oslo accords was being adhered to. The only outcome was a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration that all parties would address the final status issues of Jerusalem, settlements and refugees. There were rumors that Abu Mazen had reached some basic agreements with Peres, mainly on a plan for Jerusalem proposed by Yossi Beilin, Peres’ right hand in the negotiations, but nothing was ever confirmed.
What are the controversial issues in the refugee negotiations with Israel? How do the Palestinian delegations evaluate the problems?
The major disappointment for the Palestinian and Arab delegations has been the inability to reach an agreement with the Israeli side on the definition of the 1967 displaced persons. We thought that the Labor government would distinguish between the refugees of 1948 and the displaced persons of 1967, since the latter would return only to the 1967 occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Labor was as inflexible on the issue of the displaced persons as they were on the refugees. Thus much time was spent in fruitless discussions over “who is a 1967 displaced person.” Israel wanted to accept discussion only about those actually evicted personally during the 1967 war and refused to include their families and descendants. The Palestinian position is that families and descendants, as well as persons evicted in the course of the 29 years of Israeli occupation, constitute displaced persons. The large gap between the Israeli figures (200-300,000) and the Palestinian figures (800,000-1 million) is a result of these differences.
Another major problem is Israel’s refusal to include in any of the negotiating fora the approximately 100,000 Palestinians whose residency rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were revoked by Israel between 1967 and 1994. These persons -- “latecomers” as the Israelis call them in Hebrew -- and their families were actually registered as residents by Israel; their identity cards were revoked when they did not return from work or study abroad in time to renew their Israeli reentry visas. The Palestinian delegations in both the Multilateral Working Group and the Quadripartite Committee included the “latecomers” in their agenda. The Israeli delegation, however, insisted that this issue should be determined in a bilateral framework. This is in fact what happened, because the Oslo II Agreement (1995) provides that the reissuing of identity cards to “latecomers” should be solved by a special joint committee set up by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). I am not against the latter handling the practical aspects of the matter, but the issue should be represented in both the Quadripartite Committee, where the Palestinian position has more backing, and in the bilateral committee.
How did the Palestinian delegates try to tackle the rejectionist Israeli positions and obtain more flexibility on the Israeli side?
There have been various efforts. On the one hand, the Palestinian side suggested the establishment of permanent bilateral liaison committees, hoping that regular work contacts would help break the ice. Many such liaison committees actually exist by now. Another measure was to try to influence the Israeli side via foreign parties, particularly via the United States and Canada. Moreover, Palestinian delegations have kept emphasizing the provisions of the Oslo accords, which deal with the readmission of residents. The real problem, however, is that Israel did not accept the principle that Palestinians have a right to return and establish residency in PA areas, and that this should be a Palestinian matter. The majority of the Israeli strategists regard the readmission of large numbers of Palestinians to the areas controlled by the PA as a “security threat” to Israel, because it may open the door to a deluge of historic claims and rights. They refuse to open this “pandora”s box”, and the only thing they are willing to accept is Israel-controlled family reunification for no more than 2,000 Palestinians annually.
Most of what you have said so far relates to the Palestinian experience with the Israeli negotiators under the Labor government. Do you expect a change in the Israeli approach under the new Likud government?
On the issue of the Palestinian refugee question, there is no substantial difference between Labor and Likud -- maybe on other issues, such as Jerusalem or settlements, but not on refugees. The only difference is that the Likud explicitly states in its government guidelines that refugees would not be allowed to the west of the Jordan River. Labor perceived of a future with some PA control over the readmission of Palestinians; the Likud is completely opposed to this.
Let’s now proceed to the internal Palestinian debate and criticism raised against the negotiators. One of the concerns raised frequently is the lack of separation between the PLO and the PA in the political negotiations: The PA is negotiating while, in fact, only the PLO is authorized and able to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian refugees. Who is actually negotiating?
This is not an easy matter. In principle, the PLO leads the negotiations, and insists on doing so, because refugees are a national not a regional issue, and the diaspora is not the responsibility of the PA. This stand is reflected in the recent appointment of As‘ad ‘Abd al-Rahman as head of the refugee portfolio. He is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and has no relation with, or authority over, the PA. On the other hand, it is true that the practical negotiations have been delegated to the PA.
Israel prefers to negotiate with the PA, because then it does not have to deal with the diaspora. At the same time, Israel has avoided highlighting this fact, exactly because it cannot obtain a viable solution to the refugee question by signing an agreement with the PA. There is mutual Palestinian and Israeli interest in having the PLO in the role of the negotiator because the problem will not be solved without addressing the fate of Palestinians in the Arab host countries.
There is also the Palestinian demand to rethink the negotiating strategy; the negotiations should be channeled back in the United Nations, where, based on the international resolutions, Palestinian refugees have more international backing and a stronger position.
The international resolutions, especially General Assembly Resolutions 194 and 242, and Security Council Resolutions 338 and 237, should be the legal framework for the negotiations. At the same time, the UN arena is not so different from the multilaterals. Even the final status negotiations, although bilateral in principle, allow for drawing in others and probably will not succeed until there is some external participation, even if done behind the scenes.
Of course, this would require the consent of the Israelis. But the Palestinian parties have always insisted that the negotiations must be based on elements of these resolutions. Interpretation is then subject to negotiation. It is totally unacceptable to say, “We are living now in a new era and therefore resolution 194, for example, is no longer important.” The refugees must be offered the possibility to decide themselves on who wishes to return and who does not.
Palestinians also criticize the lack of expertise and professionalism of the Palestinian negotiators, saying that they lack legal advisers, and that political agreements backfire because they are signed by persons who are not aware of all the implications. Do you think better agreements could have been achieved by better negotiators?
This may be true for the bilateral negotiations, but is definitely not correct with regard to the multilateral talks where the negotiators are experts and deeply familiar with their issues. The problem here is not technical, it is political: Israel and the PLO are not equal partners in the negotiations, and the weaker Palestinian side has very little space to maneuver. But the alternative is to not negotiate at all.
What can the international community do in order to contribute to a just solution of the refugee question?
There has been international support for the Palestinian delegations. In the Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs, we were strongly supported by several European countries, France, Norway and Sweden, as well as Canada. But generally speaking, the international situation is heavily tilted in favor of Israel, especially when it comes to the United States. There is declining US support for UN Resolution 194. Thus, for example, the US abstained from voting for this resolution in the UN General Assembly in May 1996, when UNRWA’s mandate was renewed.
The international community has an important role when it comes to stating that negotiations have failed, and that we are in a deadlock now. It is sometimes important to state this explicitly, instead of pretending that everything is going fine.
The international community must make Israel understand that a lack of progress on the refugee question is not in its interest, because such failure will isolate and destabilize Israel. International pressure can help Israel to save it from itself
How do you see future prospects of the negotiations? What will happen?
There are difficult times ahead. The refugee question is nobody’s top agenda item, including the Arab states. The Palestinian delegations should work for progress on the small issues on which we can make progress, such as the readmission of “latecomers,” family reunification and refugees in Lebanon, because there will be no agreement on the general level. If we cannot solve the big issues, we must focus on the small ones without losing sight of the larger picture.
With regard to the multilateral talks, we are against additional formal meetings; we will attend only if there is something substantial to talk about. I hope that Israel will realize that the time has come to get to work rather than to just keep up appearances.
I expect that the final status negotiations on the refugee question will begin only after some progress on other final status issues is achieved, especially Jerusalem and settlements. In the meantime, the international community must maintain its responsibility for Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, which should not be incorporated into the PA until a political solution is found. This has been finally understood by the European and the Japanese governments, when they pledged in Amman recently to provide funds to solve UNRWA’s budgetary crisis.