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Alon Ben-Meir

Alon Ben-Meir

Posted: August 19, 2010 03:49 PM

Israel's chief reservation regarding the Arab Peace Initiative is the way in which the text addresses the issue of Palestinian refugees. Specifically, the Initiative calls upon Israel to affirm: "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194." Israelis have largely rejected this passage, believing that it in effect is calling for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel, something that would destroy the Jewish character of the state. But a closer look at the Initiative indicates that its mention of 194 need not be the Achilles' heel that Israel has made it out to be.

The Arab states' -- and Palestinians' -- inclusion in the Initiative of UNGA Resolution 194, adopted in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, is less about the text of the resolution and more about the principle it represents. Resolution 194 addressed the refugee issue as follows:

"Resolves that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property, which, under principles of international law or inequity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

To be sure, the Arab states have used this passage in Res. 194 in an effort to make the refugee issue fundamental to any Arab-Israeli peace agreement, and to further extract and mobilize sympathy from the Arab public. However, the Arab states are not chiefly concerned with Israel accepting the exact wording of 194, after all the text also calls for United Nations control over Jerusalem. They do, however, want Israel to accept the principle of addressing the plight of Palestinian refugees in the context of a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In this regard, Israelis should not be fearful of the Arab Peace Initiative's mention of UNGA Res. 194. The resolution was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly -- not the Security Council -- and as such is not binding. Furthermore, it has not been accepted by all of the parties to the conflict. Meanwhile, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which Israel and the Arab states have each signed onto, effectively supersedes UNGA Res. 194. UNSC Res. 242 addresses the refugee question by calling for a "just settlement of the refugee problem," yet does not mention the Palestinian refugees by name. Arabs have long interpreted the word "just" in Res. 242 to mean the arrangement that had been described in UNGA Res. 194, while Israelis have been averse to the word "just," interpreting it to mean that Israel should assume responsibility for the refugees. Neither is an accurate interpretation. A "just" resolution is one that both parties agree to and one that effectively settles the disputed claims at the heart of the conflict-and this is where the Arab Peace Initiative gets it exactly right.

The Arab Peace Initiative is worded such that Israel does not need to accept the wording of 194; rather it needs to accept a negotiated agreement on the Palestinian refugee issue as a key component of the framework of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement. In this regard, the key words of the Arab Peace Initiative are "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon..." It should also be noted that in every previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, especially at Camp David in 2000 and during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2007-2008 the Palestinians have accepted the principle that only a limited number of Palestinian refugees (between 20,000-30,000) would be allowed to go back to Israel over a period of a few years, under family unification.

Opponents in Israel of the Arab Peace Initiative point to the refugee question -- and the Initiative's mention of UNGA Res. 194 specifically - to discredit the effort entirely. With their interpretation of the text, they argue that the plan effectively calls for the eradication of the State of Israel by diluting the Jewish state with Palestinian refugees. A cynical view of the Initiative -- and the intentions of the Arab states - might claim that it is no wonder the 22 nations of the Arab League have offered normalized relations with Israel-they know Israel would never accept the plan, and if they did it would mean the end of the Jewish state. To further augment their arguments, those Israelis who oppose the Initiative suggest that had the Arab states really sought a realistic solution to the refugee problem they would have stated publicly their willingness to settle for partial resettlements and compensation. The Arab states and the Palestinian leadership, however, refuse to single out the Palestinian refugees and want a solution to the problem to be a part and parcel of an overall peace agreement.

Such arguments not only misinterpret the text of the Initiative and the intentions of its backers, they also do a disservice to the Israeli public by ignoring the valuable components of the Initiative which should be embraced. This includes a proper interpretation of a negotiated agreement on the issue of Palestinian refugees and a comprehensive resolution to the conflict on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 which would lead to normalized relations with the 22 member state of the Arab League in addition to the 34 Islamic countries totaling 56 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. By focusing on what it interprets to be negative aspects of the Initiative, Israel effectively sends a message to the Arab world and the international community that it is not interested in negotiating, or seeking peace. It is regretfully ironic that while the Arab Peace Initiative represents a historic repudiation of the Arab League's Khartoum conference in 1967 which declared "no to negotiations, no to recognition, no to peace," it is now Israel which appears to be the party rejecting a momentous opportunity for peace.

The Arab Peace Initiative's approach to Palestinian refugees has been the key source of the current deadlock which has caused the Initiative to languish until today. Those Israelis who are skeptical of the text -- and its mention of UNGA Res. 194 -- should take a closer look. If they remain skeptical of the intentions of the Arab states, there is only one way to find out-test them. They can do so by accepting the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative and calling for negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states using the Initiative as a basis for a comprehensive settlement.

By taking this approach Israel would effectively turn the table on those who believe it is disinterested in peace, place the burden of proof onto the Arab states, and challenge their groundbreaking promise for a comprehensive peace.

 
 
 

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