Camp David veterans caution about 'right of return' hurdle

Back in the summer of 2000, then-prime minister Ehud Barak led a team of Israeli negotiators at the Camp David retreat in 15 days of detailed and often heated exchanges with their Palestinian interlocutors. The aim was to clinch an historic final status agreement and the negotiations covered the most contentious issues of the conflict in a depth and intensity that had never previously been attempted. But the experiment failed, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ahead of the upcoming Annapolis summit, Gilead Sher, who served as prime minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff and was the co-chief Israeli negotiator at Camp David, said he believed that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was absolutely right to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The corollary to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is rejecting the "right of return" for Palestinians into Israel. "The right of return is inapplicable and implausible into any part of Israel proper, and this is well known to the Palestinians" Sher stressed. "This should be a consensus of the right and left in Israel." Sher suggested three ways of dealing with the refugee problem: rehabilitation in the future Palestinian state, permanent settlement for the refugees in their present locations or relocation abroad if the international community is willing to absorb some of the refugees. Despite the domestic opposition to Annapolis, Sher believes Olmert is doing the right thing. "In this region conditions are never right, the time is never right and the leadership is never right, but I'm very much in favor of a process that can move towards a solution of two states for two peoples." He expressed cautious optimism that "humble progress" could be made if the objectives were well defined and the process was well managed and organized, and facilitated by a third party. Regarding the Palestinians, Sher argued that Israel should be more interested in stability than the process of democratization. Another member of the Camp David negotiating team, Dan Meridor, warned that even if the Palestinians accepted the principle of a Jewish state, they could still press for the right of return. "They can argue that a state with a 60-percent Jewish majority, and not an 80% majority, is still Jewish," Meridor cautioned. "What is important is an agreement specifying the end of the conflict with no right of return." For Meridor, who was the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time of Camp David, it would be a serious mistake to leave the question of the right of return unresolved. If this problem can be settled, Meridor believes a compromise on the other core issues of Jerusalem and borders can be found. However, Meridor is not convinced that the current Palestinian Authority leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad is strong enough to implement any agreement reached and to impose a deal on the Palestinian people. Former IDF chief of General Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, another Camp David negotiator, believes that if Israel stands firm, the Palestinians will have to eventually back down on the right of return. "All those Palestinian leaders who support a peace agreement with Israel fully understand that Palestinian refugees will not be able to come back to Israel," Shahak said. "Are they willing to say it now? The answer is no. Will they be courageous enough to say it later in the process? I believe the answer is yes."