The original essay[*] was finished before the Likud's ascension to power and the formation of the Netanyahu government in June 1996. Since then the new government guidelines, which declared itself against a Palestinian state, against the 'right of return', and against sharing Jerusalem with its Arab inhabitants, was made public when Netanyahu presented his cabinet to the Knesset on June 17.
Of the major three themes that confront the Palestinians in the final status negotiations, the fate of refugees is the least likely to be affected by the Likud victory. The reason for that, in my estimate, is not because Netanyahu's right wing coalition is likely to be so intransigent, but because Labour was basically unyielding on the issue of refugees and displaced persons.
On both questions of Jerusalem and Settlements there was, and continues to be, a basic divergence in the broad views of Labour and Likud. These divergences seem to emanate from the willingness of both Peres and the late Prime Minister Rabin to consider the possibility of statehood for the Palestinians, and Netanyahu's refusal to concede sovereignty. On the issue of refugees however, there seems to be a consensus among both Likud and Labour to reject any substantive concessions towards the Palestinians. One would have thought that Labour would have made a distinction between refugees of 1948 and displaced persons of 1967 since the latter would return only to the West Bank and Gaza. But the course of negotiations, as discussed above, show that Labour was as inflexible on the issue of DPs as they were on refugees. This was apparent during the election campaign of the summer of 1967 and during public pronouncements during the campaign. While concessions on Jerusalem and settlements were themes in which the right accused Labour of having betrayed the national trust, on the theme of refugees was no such attitude. At least it was much more subdued.
There is an ideological explanation for this hardening of attitudes. In Israel there is a general fear of Palestinian Arabs making claims to their losses in 1948. Since there is a substantial amount of urban Jewish areas that are built on abandoned refugee property, and an even larger number of rural settlments that were established over destroyed Palestinian villages, Israelis of all persuations feel that even minor concessions to refugee claims would lead to a general questioning of Jewish rights in Eretz Yisrael. Some Israeli authors, such as Gazit, would distinguish between restoring rights to refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, from claims made on properties inside the coastal areas. But such a distinction is not widely shared. Many believe that once Israel begins to admit refugees to PNA areas (ie to the West Bank and Gaza), a pandora's box of historic claims and rights would follow. At the heart of this argument is the moral issue of legitimacy of the Israeli state which the successive peace agreements do not seem to have resolved.
An indicator of this consensus between right and 'left' in Israel emerged in the continuity in the team appointed by Labour following their electoral victory in 1992. Unlike the changes witnessed in the bilateral teams which negotiated the transfer of authority to the Palestinians, the teams which negotiated multi-lateral issues, particularly refugees remained basically the same. It is still too early to tell if there will be such a continuity with the Netanyahu appointments. One can gain an insigt into the new government's attitude towards refugees from the guidelines presented to the Knesset on the 17th of June 1996: "...the government will oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state or any foreign sovereignty West of the Jordan River, and will oppose the 'right of return' of Arab populations to any part of the land of Israel West of the River Jordan". Presumably the 'right of return' here refers to both displaced persons and refugees, but that remains to be seen.
I would suggest that in the coming period the issue of refugees will be further marginalized and neglected by the Israeli negotiators until it becomes an explosive and destablizing issue in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between the PNA and the Palestinian diaspora. I hope I will be proven wrong.
June 17, 1996
[*] refers to 'The Future of Refugees in Final Status Negotiations', which will be published by IPS in Beirut and Washington next month.
Rex Brynen * email@example.com * 22 June 1996