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Much Ado About Nothing?
The Refugee Working Group and the Perils of Multilateral Quasi-negotiation

Source: International Negotiations 2, 2 (November 1997)

by Rex Brynen, McGill University

Rex Brynen is associate professor of political science at McGill University, and coordinator of Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet (http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/mepp/mepp.html). In 1994-95 he served as Jules Léger Fellow with the Policy Staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Canada), and has also served as a consultant to the Canadian International Development Agency, the International Development Research Centre, various UN agencies and the World Bank. The views expressed in this article are his own, and in no way represent the position of the Government of Canada.

Among the various negotiations that comprise the multilateral component of the Middle East peace process, the Refugee Working Group faces perhaps the most intractable and sensitive issue of all: the Palestinian refugee question. The experience of the RWG can best be described as one of "quasi-negotiation," in which discussion among the parties has been hampered by differing views as to the role of the working group, and indeed whether it even represents a forum for negotiation. The implications of RWG's insertion in a broader system of linked negotiations is also explored, as is the impact of domestic constraints on the participants, and various efforts by the Canadian "gavel-holder" of the RWG to break the political stalemate within the group. Finally, the article concludes by assessing the potential role of mediation and multi-track diplomacy in addressing this sensitive issue.

Although it has been the bilateral components of the Arab-Israeli peace process that have received the lion's share of media and scholarly attention, the peace process begun at Madrid in October 1991 also contained an important multilateral component. Specifically, a series of parallel negotiations were established "to address those issues that are common to the region" and that "can best be addressed by the concerted effort of the regional parties together with the support of the international community and the resources and expertise that it can provide" (Baker 1992a). At the first organizational meeting of the multilaterals in Moscow in January 1992, five of these "working groups" were established: arms control and regional security, environment, water, regional economic development, and refugees.

The importance and effectiveness of the multilateral track has been the subject of considerable debate. Proponents have suggested that, "contrary to all expectations, the multilateral talks have performed a valuable role in moving relations between Israel and the Arabs along the path towards a new era of peace and prosperity," (Peters 1996: 74-75) or have characterized the multilaterals as a "critical instrument for promoting dialogue and regional cooperation," with the Refugee Working Group (RWG) in particular having "facilitated a dialogue which had not seriously occurred for over forty years" (Axworthy 1996).Critics have derided the multilaterals as comprising the "seminar phase" of the peace process, in which general discussion has been a substitute for concrete initiatives and substantive negotiation. Others argue that the multilaterals, while having some role, are nonetheless a "sideshow" (Spector 1996a).

This article will examine the activities and impact of one aspect of the multilaterals, the Refugee Working Group. In so doing, it will suggest that the RWG represents a case of what might be termed "quasi-negotiation," wherein discussion among the regional parties has been seriously hampered by differing views as to the appropriate scope and contribution of the working group. Most fundamentally, these differences concern the question of whether the RWG is, or has been, a negotiating forum at all. The implications of RWG's insertion in a broader system of linked negotiations will be addressed, as will the impact of domestic constraints on the participants, and the potential role of mediation and multi-track diplomacy. Finally, the article will conclude by attempting to draw some lessons regarding the dynamics of the multilateral component of the Middle East peace process, as well as the particular contribution of the RWG.

The Multilaterals and the RWG
As noted above, the multilaterals were integrated into the original design of the Middle East peace process in 1991-92. As such, they represented part of the complex prenegotiation that had been necessary to get all of the parties to the table. Arab participants in the conflict had long demanded "comprehensive" and "international" peace negotiations which would involve a multilateral negotiating framework (thus enabling Arab parties to pool their collective negotiating resources), and external participants (notably the United Nations, Europeans and erstwhile USSR, who were seen as more sympathetic to Arab aspirations than the United States). Israel, not surprisingly, had long preferred a bilateral negotiating dynamic (which would enable it to take best advantage of dyadic asymmetries) and had opposed all external involvement other than that of the US. Israel had also sought symbolic acceptance of its existence and position in the region--an aspect of "normalization" that many Arab participants were reluctant to accept, either for domestic political reasons, or in the belief that Israeli isolation was a substantial Arab negotiating card, better played at a later date.

The US view on negotiations generally mirrored Israeli preferences, with regard to both direct bilateral negotiations and a preeminent US mediatory role--both of which had been characteristics of the earlier Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David. Although both the Gulf War and the decline of the USSR had confirmed the US position as predominant actor in the Middle East, the task in initiating the peace process remained substantial: neither Israel (governed at the time by a hard-line Likud government) nor the Palestinians were particularly enthusiastic.

The architecture that was finally adopted reflected a series of trade-offs. The multilaterals, as well as the format of the formal opening of negotiations in Madrid, were intended to meet Arab desires for enlarged negotiating fora; Washington-based negotiations between Israel and (separately) Syria, Lebanon, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation addressed the most important substantive issues in bilateral formats. Within the multilaterals, the issues of water resources, environment and especially regional economic development would enable Israel to enlarge its contact with Arab actors, and hence facilitate a degree of normalization.[1]The RWG, on the other hand, was largely intended to reward the Palestinians for their participation in the broader peace process, and for their acceptance of several constraints on their participation. These constraints--demanded by Israel as a precondition for its participation--included formal Palestinian representation within the framework of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, rather than independently; restriction of Palestinian representation to persons from the West Bank and Gaza, rather than the diaspora; and a prohibition on the participation of PLO officials.

It was also understood that the multilaterals would generally operate by consensus, and that the chairs of the working groups would act as facilitators rather than exerting any procedural power or direction--an aspect that was underscored by terming them "gavel holders". At the Moscow meeting, Canada was selected as gavel-holder for the RWG, and an overall steering committee was also established for the multilaterals.[2]

Of the working groups, the RWG was clearly the most contentious of the five, touching as it did on sensitive (and even existential) issues for many of the parties. For Palestinians, the flight/expulsion of up to three quarters of a million refugees from Israel in 1948, and of a further 300,000 from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, had been defining national moments.[3] In 1991, more than 2.5 million Palestinians were registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as refugees, and more than half of the approximately 5.8 million Palestinians world-wide could be found in the diaspora (CPAP 1992). For Israel, the Palestinian refugee issue posed both a demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state, and raised potentially uncomfortable moral questions about the events of 1948. It was in the context of such sensitivities that Canada had been assigned RWG gavel in Moscow, since it was seen by Washington as cautious and reliable while being acceptable to Israel and (less importantly) the other regional parties.

Subsequently, the September 1993 Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles ("Oslo Agreement") established two other fora for addressing the refugee issue. The first was the Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian-Egyptian continuing (or "quadripartite") committee, formed in compliance with Article XII of the Oslo agreement to "decide by agreement on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, together with the necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder."[4] Second, the Oslo agreement called for "final status" negotiations on the refugee issue (as well as the issues of settlements, security arrangements, borders, and Jerusalem) to begin by May 1996.[5] With the subsequent establishment of interim self-government in Gaza and portions of the West Bank, many Palestinian refugees came under the limited jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), further affecting the dynamics of the process.

RWG Representation and Agenda
The sensitivity of the RWG was fully evident in the first two plenary meetings of the working group, held in Ottawa in May and November 1992. From the outset, the Palestinians included some delegation members from outside of the West Bank and Gaza, something which Israel complained was a violation of the Madrid ground rules. Both the US and the Canadian gavel, however, felt that it was vital to include diaspora Palestinians in a working group intended to address the refugee issue.[6] The result was an Israeli boycott of the May 1992 RWG plenary. The boycott, however, had little effect: the meeting was held anyway, and in Israel's absence a series of "themes" were identified that would come to comprise the RWG agenda: human resource development, job creation and vocational training (with the US acting as "shepherd" for this theme), public health (Italy), child welfare (Sweden), economic and social infrastructure (EU), databases (Norway), and family reunification (France).[7] Although the themes were delineated so as to facilitate future Israeli participation, Israel was particularly unhappy with the issue of "family reunification," which seemed to touch upon Palestinian demands for a "right of return"--something that Israel had consistently opposed. In order to have greater influence over agenda-setting, and with a new Labor government in power, Israel agreed to participate in the second Ottawa meeting. However a new crisis erupted when it became publicly known that the head of the Palestinian delegation, Mohammed Hallaj, was a member of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliamentary body.[8] In a somewhat surrealistic scene, a pre-RWG cocktail reception became the site of intense negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations, in which the the former discussed with Hallaj their inability to hold formal discussions with him. In the end, the difficulty was overcome by Hallaj's announcement that he was not technically a member of the PNC when it was not in session, a face-saving formula than enabled Israeli participation. However, Israel later walked out of the November 1992 meeting in continued resistance to the family reunification theme.

By the time of the third plenary meeting of the RWG[9] in Oslo in May 1993, the question of Palestinian representation was no longer troublesome, in part because the increased pace of Palestinian-Israeli bilateral negotiation (and the close engagement of the PLO in the process) had rendered it moot. This was even more the case by the time of the fourth plenary meeting in Tunis in October 1993, occurring as it did in the wake of the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles and formal, mutual political recognition between Israel and the PLO. Coincidentally, the Tunis meeting was the first multilateral plenary to be held in the region. Subsequent RWG plenary sessions were held in May 1994 (Cairo), December 1994 (Antalya), and December 1995 (Geneva).

The Internal Dynamics of the RWG

To Negotiate, or Not to Negotiate? Quasi-negotiation in the RWG
As noted earlier, the RWG has been afflicted by very serious differences between Israel and the Palestinians (and other Arab participants) over both the nature of the refugee issue and the role of the RWG in addressing that issue. The result was a process of what has been termed herein "quasi-negotiation," characterized by disagreement among the parties as to whether they are negotiating, and what it is they might be negotiating about.

For the Palestinians, the RWG has been seen as an opportunity to address a fundamental political issue, and to do so in a multilateral framework that includes both supportive Arab states and the broader international community. Central to the Palestinian position has been to assert the importance of various UN resolutions, notably UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of December 1948. UNGAR 194 declares, inter alia, that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace 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 in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." The Palestinian side, while not opposed to socio-economic initiatives, expressed repeated concern at attempts to separate the political from the humanitarian, fearing that this might represent an effort to naturalize refugees and avoid the question of national rights:

    The Palestinians saw in the RWG a forum to deal with concrete issues; though humanitarian in their essence, the issues nonetheless had a political dimension to them, such as family reunification. Also, and equally important, the Palestinians were unwilling to divorce improvements in living conditions, such as building new homes for the refugees, from their political implications (Zureik 1996: 92; see also Tamari 1996a).

By contrast, Israel initially maintained that the RWG should address all regional refugees, including Jews who had fled from Arab countries. This view won some weak early endorsement from the US, but was largely abandoned when it became clear that other participants thought that the focus of the RWG should be on Palestinian refugees. Israel has also strenuously opposed any suggestion of a Palestinian "right of return;" equally strongly opposed any attempt to establish UNGAR 194 as a basis for anything; and has emphasized that the RWG should be concerned with humanitarian rather than political issues (on the Israeli position, see Gazit 1995). After the signing of the Oslo agreement, this position was pressed still harder, with Israel arguing (Beilin 1993) that political issues were essentially excluded from the RWG by virtue of their being addressed in the quadripartite committee (for 1967 "displaced persons") and proposed final status talks (for 1948 "refugees"). In the longer term, many Israeli decision-makers have made clear their preference that the refugee issue be resolved primarily through the political absorption of refugees into their current countries of exile.

For the US, there has always been a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the role and contribution of the multilaterals. This ambiguity has reflected not only diplomatic caution and changing circumstances, but also different views within the State Department. At the outset of the process, US Secretary of State James Baker noted that the multilateral track:

    "...is in no way a substitute for what we are trying to promote in the bilateral negotiations. Only the bilateral talks can address and one day resolve the basic issues of territory, security and peace which the parties have identified as the core elements of a lasting and comprehensive peace...But it is true that these bilateral negotiations do not take place in a vacuum, and that the condition of the region at large will affect them. In short, the multilateral talks are intended as a complement to the bilateral negotiations: each can and will buttress the other.

An unspoken desire was also to "socialize" Arab and Israeli participants into cooperative interaction. Within the State Department, some were more supportive of an active role for the multilaterals; others appeared less interested in their possible contribution. Whether this was indeed the case, or whether different views are simply the product of differing political contexts and bureaucratic responsibilities, staff rotation at State coincided with an apparent decline in US interest in the multilateral track.[10] Moreover, with the September 1993 Declaration of Principles and the consequent invigoration of the bilaterals (including the October 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty), US interest in the multilaterals waned. The Oslo agreement made the US even more wary about risk-taking in the multilaterals which might adversely affect burgeoning bilateral negotiations. Finally, outside actors often perceived an innate US suspicion (born of superpower status) of the entangling requirements of multilateral politics.

Against this backdrop, US signals to the RWG were often mixed. At times, some US decision-makers encouraged the gavel to be more provocative in encouraging the regional parties to address the elements of a settlement of the refugee issue. In this regard, intersessional activities, away from the spotlight and involving smaller delegations from a smaller group of countries, could productively address thorny issues; so might "track two" efforts under academic or other auspices. At other times, the US signalled caution, fearing that rancour in the RWG might harm rather than help the bilateral process. In Ottawa, American signals were important: not only has the US been the primary mediator in the peace process, but Washington is also by far Canada's most important foreign policy relationship. At the same time, the degree of trust and excellent working relationship between the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the Department of State almost certainly gave Canada a degree of flexibility that other countries might not have enjoyed.

Canadian views of the potential contribution of the RWG also evolved throughout the process. Initially, efforts were largely focussed on disaster-avoidance, whereby convening a meeting without a dysfunctional breakdown over the many sensitive aspects of the issue was, in and of itself, a measure of success. Here, the "socialization" aspect of the multilaterals--simply establishing the normality of a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue on refugees--was primary. The very existence of the RWG was also seen by Canada as an important signal to diaspora Palestinians that their interests would be addressed within the broader peace process. Later, in the wake of the momentum generated by the Oslo agreement, RWG gavel-holder (1992-95) Marc Perron grew more ambitious, encouraging the parties to think of the strategic role that the working group might play in support of final status negotiations, whether through providing negotiators with useful data, encouraging scenario-generation, or even as a possible venue for cautious prenegotiation. In the fall of 1995 the tenor of the Canadian approach changed when Andrew Robinson (1995- ) replaced Perron as RWG gavel-holder: whereas Perron's frankness had endeared him to many and alienated others, Robinson tended to be more incremental and cautious.[11]

The Entanglements of Two-Level Games
Complicating things still further were the "two-level" games being played by various parties, whose participation in the RWG was heavily constrained by domestic political calculations (Putnam 1988; see also Brynen 1994). For senior Palestinian decision-makers, the question of refugees has been a relatively low priority; of much greater concern have been territorial issues and the mobilization of political and economic support for the PA. The establishment of the PA also lessened the already declining political weight of the diaspora community in the PLO. On the other hand, the refugee issue is one of considerable emotive salience within Palestinian public opinion, with UNRWA-registered refugees comprising more than half of the population of the West Bank and Gaza. The net result of this was to encourage the Palestinian leadership to publicly and rhetorically maintain their traditional positions on the refugee issue for domestic consumption, while devoting relatively little high-level attention or diplomatic resources to the refugee issue. Personal and factional maneuvering within the Palestinian Authority and even inside the Palestinian delegations further impeded flexibility and dynamism.

For Israel, the refugee issues was seen as a highly sensitive one domestically, and an equally low priority in the context of broader Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Consequently, there was also little incentive to show flexibility or energy in approaching the RWG, and every incentive to try to limit RWG engagement to quiet, non-controversial areas.

In both Canada and the US, domestic opinion--and especially pro-Israeli lobbying efforts from within the Jewish community--have had important effects on Middle East foreign policy formation. In early Canadian planning meetings for the first RWG plenary, for example, possible domestic fallout was evidently a very important consideration. Over time, however, these constraints were substantially relaxed, with pro-Israeli (and pro-Palestinian) groups exerting little pressure over Canada's role in the multilaterals. In the US, the refugee issue was also a low priority for domestic interest groups, and was rarely mentioned. However, domestic factors did play a role in sustaining what most multilateral participants saw as Washington's pro-Israeli tilt, with this tilt becoming more pronounced with the accession of the Clinton administration in 1993.

Linked System
A final characteristic of the multilateral track that must be emphasized is the extent to which it has been fundamentally affected by the character and dynamics of Palestinian-Israeli bilateral relations. In this sense, the RWG has been part of an interactively linked system of negotiations, in which developments on one track can affect negotiations on another.[12] This was amply demonstrated by the Oslo agreement, which substantially improved the tone of Palestinian-Israeli interaction even as it "reengineered" system linkages by establishing new negotiating fora. For Israel, such reengineering provided an opportunity to further narrow the RWG's scope. On the Palestinian side there was less clarity on how system linkages might best be utilized or reengineered, although the general view appeared to be that there was "a need to consolidate links between working groups in the multilateral peace talks and the bilateral talks" (Tamari 1996a: 28; see also Shaml 1996).

Within this linked system of negotiations, the multilateral character of the RWG has been both helpful and an impediment. On the one hand, the RWG has included the central actors (Israel, the Palestinians) and key stake-holders (Jordan, Egypt, other regional parties), although it has been seriously constrained by the boycott of Syria and Lebanon. Broader international engagement by extra-regional parties has been helpful at both demonstrating international concern and mobilizing international resources for refugee projects. On the other hand, a significant portion of the delegations that attend RWG plenaries (over forty delegations in 1996) bring very little of value to the table, and indeed may be represented by lower-level diplomats unaware of either the history of the multilaterals or the complex issues at stake. Moreover, by operating on a consensual multilateral basis, the key regional actors retain a de facto veto. According to Andrew Robinson:

    ...unlike the other working groups, the RWG is not only intensely political but it has to do with the fundamental problem which lies at the heart of the Palestinian question--the incontrovertible existence of the Palestinian refugees. Because this issue is so central it also overlaps to a great extent with the bilateral negotiations. Unfortunately this sometimes leads the parties principally concerned to view the multilateral group as a forum for making points or reinforcing their negotiating agenda on the bilateral tracks. When however one is already operating under [the constraint of] consensus, it is clear that such tactics can render agreement more difficult, and we have suffered somewhat from this at earlier stages of the process (Robinson 1996b: 3).

The result, as is typically the case in large group settings, is a tendency to lowest-common-denominator outputs and pronouncements which make full use of ambiguity and breadth to disguise continuing disagreements. RWG gavel summaries, compiled at the end of each plenary session, have been the most obvious manifestation of this.[13]

Mediator Initiatives
Collectively, these factors have made any progress within the RWG extremely slow and difficult. Former gavel-holder Marc Perron often spoke of the issue as being beset by "red lines" and "taboos," which made it difficult to even mention, let alone discuss, many of the issues (return, repatriation, camp rehabilitation, resettlement, compensation, citizenship) that were clearly critical to resolving the issue. Current RWG gavel-holder Andrew Robinson has noted that "the purely humanitarian approach, which has been mostly what has been possible until now, does not really allow us to get to the heart of the issue" (Robinson 1996b: 6). Palestinian negotiators have expressed concern that consensuality has denuded the RWG of political content; Israeli negotiators have rarely pronounced publicly on the RWG at all (which is probably revealing in and of itself).

Given this, what initiatives might external parties take to facilitate progress in the RWG, and (via the RWG) the broader peace process? This is a mediatory challenge which has confronted the US, Canada, and other participants.

The initial response, evident in the setting of the RWG agenda at the first two Ottawa plenaries, was to attempt to fractionate the complex and sensitive refugee issue into a series of more manageable dimensions. Many of these were largely humanitarian, building on cautious agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations to "improve the current living conditions of refugees without prejudice to their rights and future status."[14] However, two of the RWG's themes--databases and family reunification--were potentially more "political," touching upon sensitive issues, and with direct implications for resolution of the refugee issue. Later, other initiatives were undertaken by the gavel-holder.

One early and very important RWG "success" appeared to be database activities, a theme shepherded by Norway and undertaken by the Norwegian social research institute FAFO. FAFO's survey of living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, which was presented to the May 1993 plenary of the RWG, was the initial vehicle for the Norwegian-facilitated back-channel negotiations between the PLO and Israel which led to the Oslo agreement. However, while the RWG did encourage FAFO's scholarly activities, it is clear that the initiative was conceived and implemented independently of the working group.[15]

More generally, the database theme was intended to assist in "defining the scope of the refugee problem, establish priorities for action and assess the impact of alternative political choices" (DFAIT 1994). The importance and sensitivity of this aspect is underlined by the fact that there is little agreement among the regional parties about who is a refugee (or "displaced person"), how many refugees there are, their living conditions (especially in Lebanon), the costs and financing of possible final status arrangements (notably compensation), and what the socio-economic and other consequences of their possible return to Palestinian territory.

In practice, however, RWG efforts have tended to avoid the most sensitive aspects of the data issue. At times, the constraint has been host government attitude. In Jordan, a FAFO living conditions survey in had to be carefully negotiated, although it did ultimately generate a significant amount of valuable data. In Lebanon, both the authorities and Palestinian refugees alike are very suspicious of any research activities in that country. Other times, academic work on the refugee issue focussed excessively on technical issues and was poorly linked to the political requirements of negotiations. Finally, Norway had extra reason to be careful: like the US, it had a much larger stake in mediation of Palestinian-Israeli bilateral negotiations, and was therefore loathe to undertake sensitive RWG database activities which might imperil that broader task.[16]

Family Reunification
France, as shepherd for the family reunification theme, also played an active role early in the RWG. French diplomat Bernard Bajolet made a series of visits to the region in 1993 to discuss the issue, subsequently producing a number of recommendations (the "Bajolet Report") on the issue. An intersessional experts meeting was also held on the topic in February 1994.

The RWG, and France's activities within that framework, undoubtedly contributed to Israel's October 1993 announcement that it would raise the rate of family reunification from 1,000 to 2,000 cases (up to 6,000 individuals) per year. Israel also agreed, before and after the Tunis meeting, to revise some procedural aspects (Tamari 1996a: 9-16). Reflecting Israeli views of the RWG, these were generally portrayed by Israeli officials as unilateral humanitarian gestures, rather than as the outcome of a negotiating process.

In practice, the actual rate of family reunification remained much lower than the promised levels; moreover, procedures were complicated by subsequent agreements regarding Palestinian self-government. Many Israelis feared that the reunification of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza was the prelude to a broader "right of return" which might also include 1948 territories. Members of Israel's Likud opposition attacked the Labor government for considering the return of any Palestinians to even 1967 areas, likening them to "a sword of Damocles" over Israel's head (Sharon 1995). After Likud's May 1996 electoral victory, family reunification appears to have slowed or even stopped, while in Jerusalem a growing number of Palestinians found their residency permits revoked (AIC 1997).

In the face of this, France did not attend an informal consultative meeting of the RWG held in Jordan in November 1996 in apparent protest of the lack of progress on reunification. It did, however, agree to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian "meeting" on the issue.

The Vision Paper
Perhaps the most innovative mediator initiative undertaken in the context of the RWG was the gavel's "Vision Paper" of 1995, which attempted not only to outline the challenges facing the working group, but also to suggest some possible responses. The idea for vision papers had first developed out of a very successful meeting of the steering group of the multilaterals, held in Montebello, Québec in February 1994.[17] Further impetus was provided by the steering group at a meeting in Tabarka, Tunisia in July 1994. There it was decided to undertake a comprehensive study which would (in the words of the head of the US delegation, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau) represent "an attempt to take a long term view of the region ten years into the future" and constitute "both a vision and a set of priorities for each of the working groups to pursue as they move towards realization of the vision." Chapters on each of the multilateral working group subjects were to be drafted by the gavel holders in consultation with the regional parties.

As gavel-holder, Canada was initially alarmed at the vision paper exercise: it seemed a daunting and potentially divisive task to generate an agreed vision of the future on a topic in which there was so much fundamental disagreement. Consultations with regional parties provided little in the way of guidance.

The response by the gavel-holder was to focus less on the vision of the future,[18] and much more on the modalities whereby agreement among the regional parties might be fostered. The idea was to use the opportunity presented by the vision paper exercise to both generate new mechanisms for discussion and even prenegotiation, and at the same time exorcise some of the conceptual and terminological demons which had inhibited the working group by addressing them in a manner--namely, a non-public and Canadian-authored paper--that minimized the political risk to the regional parties.[19] The US and Russia (the multilateral cochairs) were asked for feedback on the draft paper before it was formally circulated. Both were supportive, offering a few relatively minor revisions, most of which were accommodated in the final version.[20]

In the former connection, the vision paper emphasized such possibilities as "strategic policy support, enhanced dialogue activities, and future monitoring/support for bilateral and multilateral agreements." Policy support would include research aimed at "providing the kind of mutually-accepted, objective and policy-relevant data required to inform negotiating processes, underwrite political decisions and define solutions, support the implementation of existing agreements, and facilitate the conclusion of future understandings." Some concrete examples were provided: improved data on refugee numbers and conditions; the provision of more detailed data on the potential pool of family reunification claimants; assessment of the absorptive capacity of the West Bank/Gaza (in support of any return of refugees to those areas); the implications and modalities of any future transfer of UNRWA functions to the PA; requirements and possible modalities for any future compensation mechanisms. "Enhanced dialogue" would involve "additional mechanisms for encouraging dialogue, identifying, developing and testing options, and generating political scenarios," including both quiet, small-group RWG intersessional activities and the encouragement of track two initiatives.[21] Finally, the vision paper expressed an RWG willingness to participate in monitoring and supporting whatever transitional and final arrangements were reached by the regional parties.

Canada also used the vision paper to encourage the parties to address a whole series of political "taboos": return, resettlement, rehabilitation, compensation, citizenship, and so forth. The paper was careful to balance its listing of sensitive issues, characterizing them as "questions commonly raised in the region--by concerned individuals, journalists, scholars, and government officials--regarding future resolution of the refugee issue." No Canadian or RWG policy preference was stated or implied.

The vision paper exercise was an undertaking by the Canadian mediator to use a range of mediatory and negotiating instruments--informal meetings, track two initiatives, "consultative" expert processes and prenegotiation problem-solving discussions (Fisher 1989: 442-474)--to break through some of the constraints which had prevented the RWG from addressing the core political aspects of the refugee issue. The initiative, however, failed.

One major reason for this came from outside the RWG, once again underscoring the linked nature of the peace process. When the multilateral steering committee met in Montreux in May 1995 to address the various vision papers, the discussion was largely sidelined by a growing dispute over Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem (Peters 1996: 69). More generally, the rapidly growing extent of Palestinian-Israeli interaction and negotiations (increasingly focussed on the implementation and expansion of Palestinian self-government), Israeli-Jordanian cooperation (in the wake of their 1994 peace treaty) and a degree of regional normalization (manifest in the Casablanca and Amman economic summits) all appeared to decrease the relative salience of the formal multilateral track of the peace process. Certainly, by the time of the Monreux meeting, the US seemed to have lost its earlier enthusiasm for the vision paper exercise.

Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the vision paper also played a key role. Israeli reaction varied among officials, but was generally negative. Some diplomatically described the paper as overambitious and premature. Others expressed horror that the dreaded "R" word--the Palestinian "right of return"--had made it to paper, even in the context of a list of taboos. At Montreux, the Israelis too lost interest in continuing with the vision papers.

The Palestinians also objected to the listing of another sensitive "R" issue, in their case "resettlement." More importantly, the Palestinian delegation, which had been expected to welcome greater RWG attention to the political dimensions of the refugee issue, failed to build on this aspect of the paper. Reflecting the sometimes disorganized state of PA management of the multilaterals, there was no single Palestinian response to the paper but rather a series of individual (and inconsistent) communications by RWG delegation members, most of whom were full-time scholars rather than professional diplomats. One of these was posted on the internet before it was formally received by Canada.[22] Although the Palestinians would belatedly recognize some of the advantages of the vision paper in 1996, the recognition came too late to be of much effective use.

Although external factors were primary in the failure of the vision paper, factors internal to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade also led to a certain loss of momentum. The then Canadian ambassador to Tel Aviv, Norman Spector, was unenthusiastic about the vision paper, and indeed would later describe the multilaterals as a "sideshow" and Canada's role as "biased," "flaccid," and "marginal" (Spector 1996b). In Ottawa, some suspected that Spector--a political appointee under the previous Conservative government--was "spinning" both his presentation to the Israelis and his reporting of their reaction to suit his policy preferences. Further compounding matters was a series of coincidental foreign service rotations which saw Perron leave Ottawa to become Canadian ambassador to Mexico; Robinson return from a posting as ambassador to Jordan to take up the position of RWG gavel-holder; and Spector succeeded by a new Canadian ambassador in Tel Aviv. Naturally, a delay of several months followed as the new team(s) took charge of their portfolios.

Another institutional constraint was the difficulty of interfacing current and potential track two activities with the structures of formal diplomacy. Part of the problem was attitudinal, reflecting the perennial political-cultural gap that exists between scholars and diplomats (George 1993; Brynen 1996, 1997). Moreover, if scholarly and other projects on the refugee issue were to be most productive, it was important that they operate autonomously from foreign ministries. Yet it was also apparent (as it had been with earlier database activities) that many scholars had a poor sense of how to contribute to the negotiating process. Some were also poorly informed about political developments, or their knowledge tended to lag behind events. The Middle East peace process created a wave of "rentier scholarship", in which some academics retooled old activities or pet projects in the search for new money from Western donors; equally donors sometimes saw academic projects as a quick way of producing something "announcable." In the case of the RWG, some donors funded some useful projects, and networking among academic experts was facilitated by the establishment of an email listserv and later a website.[23]

Individually, none of these factors--obstacles and advancements on the bilateral track, initial Israeli and Palestinian reactions, internal factors within DFAIT, or the difficulties in interfacing official and track two initiatives--would have derailed the vision paper exercise. Collectively, however, they led to the process being put into abeyance by the end of 1995.

With the failure of the vision paper, the RWG continued--and continued to be inhibited by the same factors which had constrained it in the past. An opening, however, seemed to be presented at the December 1995 plenary of the RWG, when both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations agreed that the concept of "adaptation" might provide a useful rubric for future activities of the group. The term itself remained cloaked in considerable ambiguity--it seemed wide enough to encompass both Israeli preferences for the rehabilitation of camps and resettlement of Palestinian refugees in their current locales, and Palestinian desires for return and repatriation--but at least the "A word," unlike the various "R words," was a point of apparent agreement. The parties also agreed to make greater use of smaller coordination meetings, something which had not been possible earlier, and which might generate a more productive atmosphere.

To follow up on the concept of "adaptation", a smaller intersessional meeting was planned for Rome in the summer of 1996, prior to which a Canadian concept paper (produced by Canada's International Development Research Centre) was circulated. The paper formally emphasized "adaptation to a changing political, social and economic environment in the West Bank and Gaza." More importantly, however, the adaptation paper attempted to tread a careful balance between "adaptation" in two other senses: first, adaptation to new realities, notably the establishment of the Palestine Authority, and the potential rehabilitation of West Bank/Gaza refugee camps; and second, adaptation by Palestinian returnees. This latter group explicitly concerned the more than 50,000 persons--predominantly Palestinian security personnel, bureaucrats and their families--who had returned since Oslo, but also had meaning for those refugees who might return under final status arrangements. Specifically, it proposed strengthening the institutional capacity of the PA and Palestinian NGOs; improved coordination of aid projects through the use of RWG mechanisms; further research, notably on the absorption of returnees; and broader consultation with the refugees themselves.

The Palestinian reaction was wary, in part reflecting internal differences that had arisen since the last RWG plenary. RWG delegation member Salim Tamari wrote:

    [Adaptation] was introduced into the jargon of the RWG after suggestions were made to the Gavel that issues of absorption and reintegration should be injected into the debate of the plenary in order to move the paralysis of the refugee group following the Antalya meeting in December 1994. Since the 'notion' of absorption proved too contentious for some of the parties in the RWG, raising the possibility of refugee return, the more "neutral" term 'adaptation' was suggested.

    But since adaptation carries with it the sense of ADJUSTMENT to existing conditions--an interpretation which was and continues to be objected to by the Palestinians, it seems that this paper attempts to inject the possibilities of RECONSTRUCTION inherent in the term.

    The thrust of this paper seems to demonstrate the utility of the concept of 'adaptation' to Palestinians who are re-entering Palestinian society and require help in this process of adjustment....

    [However] the term 'adaptation' is much too broad to have operational utility. We can enhance its instrumental meaning if we combine it with notions of absorption and reintegration of Palestinian returnees. Otherwise it carries the implied notions of adjustment to lopsided and underdeveloped realities which the Palestinians inherited from 28 years of Israeli rule (Tamari 1996b; see also Zureik 1996: 93).

Unlike the vision paper, neither party had strenuous objections to any particular section of the adptation paper. However, the planned intersessional was derailed by two other developments. The first was the election in May 1996 of a hard-line new Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu. the refugee issue had been difficult before; it was even more difficult to see grounds for agreement given the position of the new government on the question.

The second obstacle--hearkening back to the representational issues of 1992-93--arose when a long-time Jewish member of the PLO was appointed to the Palestinian delegation. The head of the Israeli delegation objected strenuously to this. Following consultations between Ottawa and Washington, it was decided that the acrimonious collapse of an RWG meeting would be a poor way to usher the new Israeli government into the multilaterals. Consequently, a diplomatic excuse was found for cancelling the intersessional meeting.[24]

Some of the issues raised in the adaptation paper may resurface, however, in other forms. At (or, more accurately, alongside) the Petra coordination meeting of November 1996, for example, the Canadian delegation presented the idea of introducing conceptual "baskets" to the work of the RWG. Some of these overlapped with issues raised in the earlier Canadian papers.[25]

Assessing the RWG: Theory and Practice
With the failure of the "adaptation" initiative, and against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu government, the RWG continued to face problems. In November 1996 an informal coordination meeting of the group held in Jordan produced better atmospherics, but no new initiatives. In March 1997 an Arab League decision to boycott all multilateral track activities in protest of Israeli settlement construction upset plans to hold an overdue plenary session of the RWG. With growing violence in the area, and with multiple postponements of final status negotiations (originally scheduled for May 1996, and then postponed to March 1997, then postponed still further), the prospects for fruitful Palestinian-Israeli official discussions on the refugee issue now seem dim.

Given this, what can be concluded about the dynamics of the RWG? What, in terms of negotiation theory, does the RWG experience tell us? And what are the lessons and challenges for mediation in the refugee issue?

The RWG and Negotiations Theory
Perhaps the most important lessons concern what might be labelled--at the risk of terminological implosion--the difficulties of linked, asymmetrical, constrained, multilateral quasinegotiation. The multilaterals are clearly part of a broader set of linked negotiations, and are deeply affected both by outcomes at other levels and by the reengineering of systemic linkages. The RWG has been fundamentally asymmetrical--despite its multilateral character--because of the very serious disparity of power between the Palestinians and Israel. This inequality, coupled with Israel's desire to maintain the status quo (that is to say, the presence of refugees outside Palestine) has made it extremely difficult for the Palestinian side to extract compromises. Recent discussions of asymmetrical negotiation have highlighted debate over whether conditions of asymmetry are propitious for, or inhibiting of, successful negotiation (Rubin and Zartman 1995). In the RWG, many of the usual responses of weaker parties--coalition-building, inhibiting tactics, focussed attention, and so forth--have not been consistently applied, in part for reasons of weak institutional capacity and poor policy planning within the PA. As one Palestinian negotiator frankly expressed the situation, "the official Palestinian position appears reactive: it responds to crises and initiatives from the outside, but lacks an articulated agenda and a clear position" (Zureik 1996: 94). As a result, refugee discussions have had less of a transformative effect than might be expected. The procedural rules, emphasizing as they do the consensual and multilateral character of the discussions, make progress even slower, by providing each regional party with a practical veto over formal multilateral initiatives.

The existence of second-level, domestic constraints on both actors has heightened this immobilism still further, as has the lower priority presently assigned to the refugee issue by Israel, the Palestine Authority and the US. In this context, there is little incentive for parties to move away from their traditional positions.

Finally, the RWG in particular has been limited by the peculiarities of what here is termed quasinegotiation--that is, a situation where not all the parties at the negotiating table in fact believe themselves to be "at the table." For Israel, smaller groups (bilateral negotiations, the quadripartite committee) are seen as more advantageous venues than the RWG for addressing the political elements of the refugee question, and consequently it has sought to confine the RWG to a largely symbolic fund-raising and aid coordination role. The Palestinian position has been more varied, but it is clear that the PA has developed no systematic and consistent view of what role the RWG has, what purposes it can serve, and how it can be used in conjunction with other linked negotiations.[26]

Compounding this have been a number of actor-specific institutional effects: the impact of internal Palestinian politics; of foreign service rotations in Canada and the US; and even of idiosyncratic factors associated with individual participants. Methodologically and theoretically, these point to the importance of bureaucratic and organizational variables, as well as to the importance of process-tracing in negotiations analysis. Practically, all of these factors have clearly affected the course of the RWG (and other multilaterals) at key moments.

The RWG and the Challenge of Third Party Mediation/Facilitation
The sheer magnitude of the challenges presented by the refugee issue, and the configuration of that issue within the RWG, makes political progress difficult. It also makes mediation, facilitation, or "gavel-holding" (in the deliberately passive language of the multilaterals) a thankless task, with the parties themselves unsure that they wish to be at the table--let alone mediated--in the first place. In the case of the RWG, the gap between the hopes of the NGO, academic and refugee communities, and the realities of painfully slow progress (if any), have created a serious problem of unmet expectations. This has been compounded by the non-public way in which the multilaterals have operated, which has often generated counterproductive public speculation about what is really going on behind closed doors.[27] Recognizing that this process was creating significant negative externalities--especially in Lebanon, where the rumour mill has been particularly active--Canada periodically called for a more open approach to at least some components of the multilaterals, but was unable to secure broad agreement on the issue.

Looking ahead to the future, the difficulties of generating tangible RWG-associated political benefits could lead to a narrowing focus on the humanitarian aspects of the refugee issue--a valuable and more "announcable" role, but less useful as a long-term contribution to resolution of the issue. It might also lead to the gradual disengagement of Canada or of the regional parties; or to the slow death of the multilaterals (already in abeyance at the time of writing).[28]

This would be unfortunate, since--precisely because the situation remains "unripe" for fruitful formal final status negotiations, the RWG does have two important potential roles to play. The first remains one of possible prenegotiation, providing the parties a lower-risk forum within which to explore opponents' positions, examine trade-offs and explore alternatives, preestimate potential gains and costs, delimit and define future agendas, and reconceptualize the issues at stake (Zartman 1989: 242-250; Stein 1989: 490-491, 499-504). The second role emphasizes some of the broader components of what Harold Saunders (1996) has called "circum-negotiation," involving activities often outside the official setting at the level of a quasi-official process, at the level of public dialogues, and even more broadly within civil society. Here, the RWG (or members of the RWG) can encourage second track projects that serve the roles of strategic technical research and scenario-generation/brainstorming. It might even be possible, at a future point, to integrate the unofficial and official approaches in what one US diplomat referred to as "track-one-and-a-half" initiatives (described elsewhere as parallel informal negotiation; see Susskind, Chayes & Martinez, 1996).

Second track initiatives are, of course, no substitute for official processes. As suggested earlier in this article, second track activities are difficult to coordinate, and potentially of uneven quality. Palestinian participants in the RWG have also expressed the view that second track activity focussed on attitudinal and ideological factors might come at the expense of attention to nuts-and-bolts policy issues such as residency rules and family reunification procedures Tamari 1996a: 27-28). Given the potential that multiple uncoordinated mediatory initiatives can actually harm peacemaking (Kriesberg 1996: 343-344), the use of alternative tracks is not an initiative to be undertaken lightly.

Nevertheless, given the current impasse in the broader Middle East peace process, as well as the specific obstacles to dealing with the refugee issue, attention to the broader elements of "circum-negotiation" seems warranted. These might then help to generate the kinds of data and ideas that, under more auspicious circumstances, prenegotiators and negotiators can borrow, reject or modify--facilitating both the pace and quality of their discussions, whether now or at some future point.

[1] For this reason, Syria and Lebanon have boycotted the multilaterals.

[2] The other gavels are the US and Russia (ACRS), the US (water), the EU (REDWG), and Japan (environment). The multilateral steering committee is "chaired" by the cosponsors of the peace process (US and a largely inactive Russia), and consists of the "regional parties" (Israel, Jordan, Palestinians and Egypt, with Syria and Lebanon not participating); Saudi Arabia (representing the Gulf Cooperation Council) and Tunisia (representing the Arab Maghrib Union); the EU, Japan and Canada (as gavels); and Norway (as chair of the post-Oslo Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which oversees aid to the Palestinian Authority). (Peters 1996: 8-15).

[3] The question of whether Palestinians fled or were driven into exile by Israel is one of the most contentious issues of all. See, for example Morris (1987) and Masalha (1992).

[4] In the parlance of the issue, "refugees" are Palestinians who fled Israeli proper in 1948, while "displaced persons" are those who fled the West Bank and Gaza when these areas were occupied by Israel in 1967. Complicating things further is the fact that many refugees still live in Palestinian areas (West Bank and Gaza) although not in their original homes (in what is now Israel); that many displaced persons are also refugees; and that many Palestinians in the diaspora do not neatly fall into either category, having left the area other than in 1948 or 1967.

[5] The final status negotiations were formally opened in May 1996, but substantial negotiation was delayed by the change in Israeli government. Subsequently, the January 1997 agreement on Israeli redeployment in Hebron called for the negotiations to begin in March, although in practice this was delayed by Israeli settlement activity and a consequent decline in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

[6] US support for Palestinian participation in the RWG was expressed in Moscow, and again in a February letter from US Secretary of State James Baker (1992b)

[7] Later in the process, Switzerland was given special responsibility for the "human dimension" in the RWG and other working groups.

[8] It had been known some time previous to the meeting that Hallaj would be a member of the Palestinian delegation, and that he was a member of the PNC. Israeli objections were raised, however, only when it was reported in the Israeli press.

[9] Somewhat confusingly, this was retroactively numbered RWG IV, after it was decided to number all working groups from the first organizational meeting in Moscow. Still more confusing, this rule has been unevenly applied by the participants.

[10] Specifically, (former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs) Daniel Kurtzer was seen as most supportive of the multilaterals, and (Special Middle East Coordinator) Dennis Ross and (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs) Toni Verstandig less supportive.

[11] During his tenure as RWG gavel Perron was Assistant Deputy Minister (Africa and Middle East) at DFAIT; Robinson's prior posting had been as Canadian ambassador to Jordan, and he was appointed Director-General of an upgraded Middle East Peace Process Coordination Bureau consisting of two foreign service officers. Some of the Israelis grew to resent Perron's blunt style; one, in an unguarded moment, characterized him as a "liar" and "completely biased".

[12] See Watkins and Passow (1996: 333). To date, however, influence has largely flowed downwards, from the bilaterals to the RWG.

[13] These non-public documents have typically included language to the effect that "The Palestinian delegation and Arab delegations reiterated their position that the work of the Group should be built upon existing UN resolutions pertaining to Palestinian refugees. Others asserted that we should avoid becoming a political arena and search for direct and realistic results to assist Palestinian refugees.... All delegations stressed that [aid programs] will be implemented without prejudice to the rights and future status of Palestinian refugees."

[14] Some variation of this formula has appeared in virtually all statements and gavel summaries of the working group.

[15] Former Canadian ambassador to Israel Norman Spector (1996a) later complained that some Canadian officials claimed unwarranted credit for having facilitated the Oslo channel. However, a senior US official has suggested to the author that the "political socialization" undertaken by the multilaterals had played an important role, and that "it is no coincidence that the parties that had made breakthroughs in bilateral negotiations were the same ones that had participated in the multilaterals."

[16] Tamari (1996a: 24), arguing that existing RWG database activities have avoided political "rocky terrain" suggests that, as a consequence, more useful activities are conducted outside any connection to the peace process.

[17] The Montebello meeting--which was subsequently praised by the US as achieving the sort of atmosphere that fostered cooperation within the multilaterals--was deliberately convened by Canada in a quiet and scenic hotel, complete with informal sleigh rides and other activities intended to relax participants and encourage socialization and mutual "learning".

[18] In fact, the vision paper devoted approximately 3 of 45 paragraphs to future outcomes, which were expressed in such general terms as hope for "a future without refugees--or, more specifically, a future in which no one displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict (or their descendants) considers themselves to be a refugee."

[19] Initially the paragraphs of the vision paper had not been numbered, so as to discourage phrase-by-phrase haggling over its content and to encourage parties to see it as a whole rather than objecting to parts. This was later abandoned, however, as it became increasingly difficult to hold telephone conversations about a paper which contained no referential structure.

[20] To encourage a positive US response, the paper was peppered with quotes from US officials suggesting a more ambitious and strategic role for the multilaterals. In order to build on existing agreement, the paper also made use of language from the Camp David Accords, the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, the Israeli-Jordanian "Common Agenda" of September 1993, and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

[21] In one paragraph, the vision paper actually used a small amount of consensual language that had emerged from an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation second track project on the multilaterals.

[22] A revised version of these comments was later published as chapter 5 of Tamari (1996a). Later, Palestinian comments on the "adaptation paper" were also posted on the internet prior to the intersessional meeting at which the topic was to be discussed.

[23] The email listserv is FOFOGNET ("Friends of the Friends of the Gavel NET") which originated as the Canadian academic advisory group to DFAIT, but later expanded to include almost one hundred experts in North America, Europe and the Middle East. The website is Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet, which can be found at http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/mepp/mepp.html. A list of ongoing scholarly projects on the refugee issue can be found on PRRN.

[24] "At the coordination meeting, we had agreed a date for holding the mandated intersessional workshop on "Adaptation" which should have taken place early in June. Unfortunately, as a result of difficulties experienced by a number of delegations either in identifying suitable experts on adaptation to participate in the meeting, or indeed in being able to participate at all with delegations from headquarters, we decided to postpone that meeting" (Robinson 1996a). An intersessional meeting on databases did go ahead as planned, however.

[25] The meeting also agreed to go ahead with an intersessional meeting on public health in January 1997.

[26] See, for example, the relative lack of attention given to these issues in the chapter on "Highlights of a Strategy: Difficult Choices for a Palestinian Negotiator," in Tamari (1996a).

[27] In the case of the RWG, a number of (largely Arab) press reports suggested that the working group was developing plans to resettle Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Iraq, Canada or elsewhere. The result was often substantial hostility to the RWG/Canada by NGOs suspicious of its agenda, or by Lebanese actors fearful of Palestinian "tawtin" (implantation). Of course, the RWG has never come close to detailed political discussions/negotiations/plan-making of this or any similar extent.

[28] Indeed, there has already been Canadian press criticism of the lack of Canadian achievements (Spector 1996a, 1996b; O'Neill 1997). To date, however, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, has expressed continued support for the Canadian role. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996.

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