In this article, I examine the Arab Peace Initiative's views for resolving the issue of Palestinian refugees. The API was endorsed by the Arab summit in March 2002 in Beirut. It presented a plan to "enter into a peace agreement with Israel" and establish normal relations with it in the context of a comprehensive peace. The peace proposal was conditioned upon "full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967". With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the API required Israel to accept an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on Palestinian lands it occupied in 1967. It also addressed the core issue of Palestinian refugees–those who were forced out in the 1948 war from the part of Palestine on which Israel was established, and their descendents. According to UNRWA figures, the number of registered refugees was close to five million in 2008.

The API calls for the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194". This is a carefully coded clause that addresses both Palestinian and Israeli concerns. For Palestinians it invokes justice, which for them entails the return of all refugees who wish to do so to their homes, towns, and cities, which are now inside Israel. It also invokes 194, which states that any refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors" should be able to do so.

At the same time, the API stipulates that the solution to the refugee problem should be "agreed upon", a phrase that is catered to the Israelis. All negotiated agreements should be agreed upon by the negotiating parties. However, by including this self-evident phrase the Arab summit sent a thick diplomatic hint of flexibility to the Israelis and expressed explicit assurances that although the negotiations on the refugee problem should be based on 194 in order to give the agreement the appearance of legitimacy, any arrangement must also be accepted by Israel.

This clause also strikes a balance among the various contradicting Arab views, takes into account the official Palestinian views (but not necessarily the views of the Palestinian refugees themselves), and reflects deep grounding in realpolitik guided by the balance of power in the region. It is hard to envision a different clause based on a negotiated two-state solution coming from the current Arab order.

Just weeks before endorsing the API, late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had argued in a piece published in the New York Times that the Palestinians "understand Israel's demographic concerns" and that while the Palestinian right of return is guaranteed by international law and 194, it "must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns". Thus, the Arab summit gave a stamp of approval to this official Palestinian view, which had already reflected the gross power asymmetries between the parties, with strong hints to Israel that the Arab official position would not challenge an agreement that reflected the asymmetry.

One can say that the Arab Peace Initiative left it up to the power asymmetry between Palestinians and Israelis to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides and wrapped this position in Arab and international legitimacy. The Arab states that would have liked to see the refugees return–or more accurately, leave their host countries, such as Lebanon–went along with the clause given the delicate balance it reflected.

The Israelis of course already knew about the official Palestinian position and Arab flexibility on refugee issues through their own direct diplomatic channels, the United States and their various intelligence sources. Thus the position the API presented was not new to Israel. What was new and of utmost importance was that the Arab summit made its position about the issue of refugees public.

For years, Israel chose to ignore the Arab Peace Initiative. But its view on this clause became clear in its response to the roadmap for peace brokered by the Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) in April 2003. The roadmap stipulates that Israelis and Palestinians should reach "an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue". The roadmap anchors its various stipulations in relevant UN resolutions, agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, and the Arab Peace Initiative. In May 2003, the Israeli cabinet approved the Quartet's roadmap but attached 14 reservations, which made the approval meaningless.

The cabinet requested that in a final settlement, "declared references must be made to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state" and that there should be "a waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel." The cabinet also confirmed that the Arab Peace Initiative cannot be a basis for an agreement and that all references to it must be removed.

The Arab Peace Initiative with its flexibility on the refugees issue was, by and large, acceptable to the Palestinian political class. Whether such a position is acceptable to the Palestinian people and, equally if not more important, to the refugees, has so far been untested. Israel has repeatedly closed the door to the possibility of such a test.

Published 15/12/2010 ©

Original article published on BitterLemons here.


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