CNN has recently shown footage from inside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon – which makes for grim viewing. The interviewer said the people were living in sub-human conditions within the camps, and it was clear that if anything, that is an understatement.
The Arab League has taken the refugee disaster into account when it unanimously endorsed the revival of Saudi King Abdullah's 2002 Arab peace initiative. The League, at its summit meeting on March 28-29, also issued a joint statement calling on Israel to accept the terms of the initiative, which contains a reference to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 stipulating all Palestinian refugees be granted a return to their homes. Those not wanting to return should be given suitable compensation.
Israel will not accept this. Therefore, in its original form the initiative will always present an impasse. The initiative also talks of finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Among the solutions fielded is allowing the refugees to return to the territories which would become a Palestinian state if the initiative were agreed upon – and again, giving compensation for the lives they were not allowed to live. This seems to present a solution but it is never elaborated: no figures are mentioned and no guarantees are given. This needs to be done if Palestinian negotiators are to take the initiative’s chances of achieving an agreement seriously, and not only on the refugee issue, but every issue covered by the initiative
The initiative offers Israel a sweet deal, in return for a full withdrawal from territories occupied after the 1967 war, the creation of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and full right of return or suitable compensation for all refugees. The normalization of relations would be a fundamental benefit that Israel would get – which means full recognition of the Jewish state by all states in the Arab League, i.e., practically all Arab states. This is something which hadn't been on the table before it was offered at the Beirut Arab League summit in 2002. For states which have never had anywhere close to normalized relations with Israel – most notably Syria and Lebanon – this is understandably a hard pill to swallow and something they will not do easily.
The refugee issue is a sore point for both sides. Palestinians, even in the current generation, are understandably angry at Israel forcing their brethren off family or ancestral land and into squalor. No Palestinian negotiator will accept any agreement that does not make up for the denial of a potentially good life and years of sub-human conditions that Palestinian refugees have been forced to endure. This issue has the potential to destroy the chances of the Saudi initiative to bring peace and every future negotiation.
That is why the compromises and solutions being offered need to be brought to the forefront, replacing the long-running cycle of gesture and counter-gesture, never anything more than empty words. For instance, when the initiative advocates an Israeli pullout from the territories occupied after 1967, some would argue that this is now impractical because of Israel's settlement building and the necessity to ensure future security for their population.
They suggest that a land swap will be necessary, giving land back to the Palestinians equivalent to what was taken in 1967. Nice in theory, but if the initiative is to be presented as a serious option for peace, it is time to take the suggestions to the next stage. Those who need to know such a swap will be necessary – the Israeli Government – already do know and have known for a long time. It is not necessary to reiterate it; instead, suggestions should be made by both sides about which land could be swapped.
The same goes for the refugee issue. It is no use regurgitating the possibility of open-ended compensation, which in reality could and should have been given as soon as it was clear that Israel could never allow the refugees to return home, soon after the Arabs were expelled in the 1948 war for Israel's independence, or any time from any of the governments thereafter. If Israel is serious when it claims its only desire is to live in peace beside the Palestinians, then, to allay some of the anger Palestinians feel and go towards making up for the refugees loss, what better gesture than to promise them the very least of what they deserve, and state a clear figure to compensate all refugees as a precursor to negotiations on the new initiative?
If compensation was promised, then negotiations could perhaps proceed in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, as opposed to resentment and doubt. Negotiations should concentrate on hammering out the final borders for a Palestinian state, and with normalized relations all round. By necessity, this would also mean a promise by Israel to knock down the security wall where it impedes on the Palestinian state. The two state solution is the only viable suggestion. It's time to make it a reality.