Palestinian leaders OK’d limited return of refugees

Al Jazeera reports leaked papers

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In December, Saeb Erekat — chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — wrote an op-ed in the Guardian saying there could be no compromise over the “right of return,” the PLO’s longtime demand that the millions of Palestinians displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and their descendants be allowed to move back to their homes in Israel.

But according to the the Palestine Papers, a cache of 1,676 leaked documents from the PLO’s Negotiatons Support Unit being made public by Al Jazeera this week, Mr. Erekat and other Palestinian leaders already had effectively agreed to relinquish that right in the context of a final-status peace agreement with Israel.

“Palestinians will need to know that 5 million refugees will not go back,” Mr. Erekat said, according to minutes of an October 2009 meeting with U.S. diplomats. “The number will be agreed as one of the options.”

In January 2010, according to minutes of a meeting with a U.S. official, Mr. Erekat elaborated, saying the Palestinian negotiating team had put in writing its acceptance that only a “symbolic number of refugees return.”

Other documents indicate that for the vast majority of refugees, Palestinian negotiators were prepared to accept a mechanism that involved reparations, absorption in a Palestinian state, and normalization within third-party countries.

While the “symbolic number” Mr. Erekat referenced remains elusive, it appears that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams on the question were smaller than previously thought — or at least smaller than on other core issues.

“I read your side-by-side matrix,” then-Secretary of State Condolezza Rice said of a PLO document outlining the two parties’ negotiating positions, according to minutes of a July 2008 meeting with PLO officials. “It seems that the closest is on refugees, although it requires some decisions.”

In a leaked e-mail, a legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators on refugees wrote, “President [Mahmoud] Abbas offered an extremely low proposal for the number of returnees to Israel a few weeks only after the start of the process.”

According to the Palestine Papers, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered in 2008 to absorb 5,000 Palestinian refugees over the course of five years — less than the tens of thousands Israeli negotiators reportedly agreed to during the July 2000 Camp David, Md., summit and January 2001 talks in Taba, Egypt.

Mr. Abbas called the Olmert proposal “unacceptable,” according to minutes of an internal Palestinian March 2008 meeting, but also said that “it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or even 1 million — that would mean the end of Israel.”

The refugee issue has long bedeviled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. While previous Israeli governments, like Mr. Olmert’s, have demonstrated flexibility on many Palestinian demands — such as a state based on the 1967 lines and a capital in East Jerusalem — there remains an overwhelming consensus in Israel against any mass return of refugees because it would endanger the country’s Jewish majority, as well as a widespread skepticism that the Palestinians would settle for anything less.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, the country’s former foreign minister, told The Washington Times in a recent interview that one reason he believed the Palestinians have been avoiding face-to-face talks with Israel was that “in a direct dialogue, they will lose the support of the international community because they will insist on what they call the ‘right of return’ and all the world will be against it.”

Mr. Shalom said: “President Clinton once told me that he told Arafat in Camp David in 2000, ‘You would like to have a Palestinian state — that’s fine, many will support you. You would like to have all the Palestinian people come to live within the Palestinian state — that’s fine, many will support you. But when you ask that your own people that already live in your future state — [to] move to [Israel], that seems illogical. [Unless] you have other intentions.’”

While Palestinian leaders have publicly declared their willingness to meet many Israeli demands — such as that their future state be demilitarized and that its borders be drawn to let Israel annex certain West Bank settlements — compromise over the right of return, as Mr. Erekat acknowledged, remains taboo among Palestinians, particularly in the squalid camps across the Middle East where refugees and their descendants have languished for decades.

And according to Mr. Erekat, the popular referendum Palestinian leaders have long promised on a peace deal would exclude refugees residing outside the West Bank and Gaza.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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