Update: Israeli-Palestinian Final Status Negotiations

By mid-December, Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams had met some ten times to discuss issues pertaining to the framework agreement to be signed in February 2000 as a first step towards a future comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. US Foreign Secretary Albright's visit gave rise to strong official Palestinian protests against the ongoing Israeli settlement activities in the 1967 occupied territories, including a Palestinian threat to halt the final status negotiations. Following Albright's departure, however, negotiations resumed.

Nothing unpredictable has happened in these meetings between the Israeli team headed by the former Israeli Ambassador to Jordan, Oded Eran, and the Palestinian team headed by PA Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo. Both sides presented their official starting positions. The Palestinian position is based on the demand for the full implementation of international law and UN Resolutions (242, 338, 194; see also interview with Daoud Barakat, al-Majdal 3). The Israeli position holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved outside the framework of international law and reflects the famous NO-s stated by Prime Minister Barak in numerous occasions (NO to full Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories; NO to the dismantling of Israeli settlements; NO to a compromise on sovereignty over Jerusalem; NO to the refugees' right of return to Israeli territory). The positions look unbridgeable; each trial balloon launched by one side (i.e. Palestinian demand for compensation for Israel's 32-year-long use of resources in the 1967-occupied territories) is immediately countered by the other (Israeli demand for compensation for infrastructure development in the occupied territories).

The feeling that these official meetings are no more than shadow-play is shared by broad sectors of both, the Palestinian and the Israeli public. The common assumption is that the real negotiations are happening (or will happen) elsewhere, or that there will be no agreement at all. The precedent of the secret Oslo Accords; the appointment of Oded Eran, considered a second-rank diplomat by many in Israel, to the position of head negotiator; the ongoing internal debate over the resignation of As'ad Abdelrahman, head of the PLO Refugee Department, from the negotiation process; the fact that the technical sub-committees have remained unknown and inactive; the undemocratic leadership-style of both Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, and the approval, given in principle by both, to a negotiation summit before the February 2000 deadline for the Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement - all these are seen as indicators which suggest that the current official meetings are of marginal importance. Given the unequal balance of power between the Palestinian leadership and Israel, and the strong international interest in a settlement of the Middle East conflict, the scenario for the rights of the Palestinian people, especially its refugees, is gloomy. Palestinian collective rights are likely to be sacrificed once again in an agreement hammered out behind closed doors in a Camp-David-style summit, where US pressure will weigh heavily on PLO Chairman Arafat.

Against the background of this worrying scenario came an apparent breach of the Israeli ranks on the issue of the Palestinian refugees' right of return. During a visit to Shu'fat refugee camp in Jerusalem on 21 November and in the presence of Faisal Husseini, the PLO executive member responsible for Jerusalem, Labour Knesset member Yossi Katz said that Israel should stop "closing its eyes to reality" when it came to the refugee issue. While it was true that "Israel is not the only responsible for the refugee problem, Israel shares responsibility for its creation. Within the framework of family reunification, or any other framework agreed upon between the sides," Israel should enable "a portion, maybe some 100,000 refugees, to return home" to their lands in what was Mandate Palestine but is now Israel. MK Katz's statement caused uproar in Israel's political scene, was strongly criticized by Katz's Labor Party colleagues, and immediately "corrected" by the Israeli Prime Minister. Palestinian reactions were moderate: "a step in the right direction, but still far from the needed recognition of the principle of the refugees' right of return."

Writing in the Al-Ahram Weekly (25-11 to 1-12-99) British journalist Graham Usher noted that, "Katz's comments were less a new departure for the Labor Party than a carefully floated trial balloon to test domestic Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the conception of 'return' that is long on symbolism but short on substance. [A step] to pave the way to an Israeli-determined solution to the refugee file in which 100,000 Palestinians are 're-unified' with their patrimony at the price of 4.8 million others being separated from it once for all."

If this analysis is correct, it implies that the Israeli leadership - irrespective of its current rigid refusal to discuss the return of refugees into Israel proper - is aware of the fact that some compromise on the issue might be unavoidable, if the Palestinian leadership succeeds to avoid a premature compromise. It will remain the task of the Palestinian people, its movement for refugee rights, and the international solidarity and human rights movement, to prevent such an early compromise by the Palestinian negotiators and to pressure Israel towards full recognition of the refugees right of return to their homes and properties.

Palestinian Response to Return Trial Balloon

13% believe that the Israeli response to the statements made by Israeli Knesset member Yossi Katz on refugees’ rights indicates a positive development in Israeli thinking while half of the Palestinians had not heard of Katz’s statement or the Israeli response to it. About a third believed that it reflected continued Israeli insistence on refusing to deal positively with refugees’ right of return.

42% of Palestinian refugees have confidence that the Palestinian leadership will remain committed to declared and basic rights of the Palestinians in its final status negotiations with the Israelis compared to 50% in towns and villages and 44% in cities.

Source: Center for Palestine Research and Study (www.cprs-palestine.org) Poll #45 2-4 December 1999. The total sample size of the poll is 1299 from Palestinians 18 years and older, of which 807 in the West Bank and 492 in the Gaza Strip. The margin of error is +3% and the non-response rate is +3%.

"The IDF's New Take on the Refugee Problem"
"The waves of fleeing Arabs after the invasion by Arab states was prompted by Israeli attacks against the invading Arab armies. At that stage, Israel abandoned the previous borders and the restraints that had prevented it from crossing the partition line. It became legitimate to expel those who had brought the invading armies down on the country. At times, the refugees were expelled beyond the border. In a number of cases, Israel Defense Force units scared Arab residents to spur their flight and there were also a few isolated incidents of massacres." "Conscious government decisions transformed the flight, which Arab residents of the Land of Israel assumed would be temporary, into a permanent refugee problem."

Source: Haaretz, 5/11/99, excerpts from "The Bow Bearers" by Yoav Gelber and Hani Ziv, recently published by the Israeli Defense Ministry.