Analysis: Seeking the elusive refugee formula

Israel's reaction to the Arab Peace Initiative which, in some form or another, is expected to be relaunched this week by the Arab League in Riyadh, will be determined by how the Arab leaders choose to finesse the refugee issue. Israel has made it explicitly clear that it cannot accept the wording on this issue as it appeared in the Arab Peace Initiative launched in Beirut on March 28, 2002. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal suggested Monday that Arab leaders would be willing to consider changes in the plan to make it "compatible" with new developments. If he were looking for creative ideas that Israel might accept, he would do well to look at the Clinton Parameters of December 23, 2000. The Arab Peace Initiative being widely discussed now called upon Israel to affirm "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN Resolution 194." That non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution from December 1948 states, "The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." What Resolution 194 means for Palestinians was made clear in a memorandum written by the Palestinian Negotiating Team headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo on January 1, 2001 in response to former US president Bill Clinton's parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. "It is important to recall that Resolution 194, long regarded as the basis for a just settlement of the refugee problem, calls for the return of Palestinian refugees to 'their homes,' wherever located," the memorandum read. "The essence of the right of return is choice: Palestinians should be given the option to choose where they wish to settle, including return to the homes from which they were driven." The Arab Peace Initiative, in addition to referring to Resolution 194, also called for "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation [tawtin in Arabic, which is variously translated as naturalization or resettlement] which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries." This is a clause interpreted in Jerusalem as a wholesale Arab rejection of absorbing refugees into the host countries. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have both made clear that acceptance of UN Resolution 194, and the clause that rejects patriation, cannot be a basis of negotiation with Israel. Then what type of language on the refugee issue would be acceptable? To find out, the Arab League need look no further than the Clinton Parameters that dealt with the issue at length. In that document, which Israel accepted on the condition that the Palestinians also accepted it as it was presented (which they didn't), Clinton said: "A new state of Palestine is about to be created as the homeland of the Palestinian people, just as Israel was established as the homeland of the Jewish people. Under this two-state solution, our guiding principle has to be that the Palestinian state will be the focal point for the Palestinians who choose to return to the area, without ruling out that Israel will accept some of these refugees." Clinton said that a formulation needed to be adopted "on the right of return that will make clear there is no specific right of return to Israel, itself, but that does not negate the aspirations of Palestinian refugees to return to the area. I propose two alternatives: Both sides recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to historic Palestine. Both sides recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to their homeland." According to Clinton's ideas, "The agreement would define the implementation of this general right in a way that is consistent with the two-state solution. It would list the five possible homes for refugees: 1) The State of Palestine; 2) Areas in Israel being transferred to Palestine in the land swap; 3) Rehabilitation in host country; 4) Resettlement in third country; 5) Admission to Israel. "In listing these five options, you would make clear that return to the West Bank, Gaza Strip or the areas acquired through the land swap would be a right for all Palestinian refugees, while rehabilitation in their host countries, resettlement in third countries or absorption into Israel would depend upon the policies of those countries. "Israel could indicate in the agreement that it intended to establish a policy so that some of the refugees could be absorbed into Israel, consistent with Israel's sovereign decision." And therein, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Re'ut Institute and secretary and coordinator of the Israeli negotiating team under Ehud Barak from 1999-2001, lies the beauty of the Clinton parameters on this matter. Grinstein, who actually typed up the final version of these parameters presented to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, said it recognized the "right of return," but made it dependent on an Israeli willingness to let the refugees in - something no Israeli leader would likely agree to. "This formulation allowed the Palestinians to indicate that the right of return had been recognized, but allowed the Israeli side to maintain full sovereignty over the issue of who would be allowed to enter Israel," he said. Grinstein said Israel neither agreed nor made any commitment at the time to admit any number of Palestinian refugees, even a symbolic amount - a position that very much remains Jerusalem's policy to this day.