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Goin' Home on Israel-Palestine: Rights of Return PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Saturday, 22 April 2006 14:24
Goin' Home on Israel-Palestine: Rights of Return

Agence Global - 
Rami G. Khouri - Wisdom, equity and realism on Arab-Israeli issues are scarce commodities among former or serving American officials. So it is noteworthy when one of the most experienced and respected ex-American diplomats suggests that a key to peace-making should be Israeli recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out in 1948 to return to their homes and lands in what is now Israel. This is what former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering suggested last week here in Doha, Qatar.


An American Voice Worth Hearing
on the Palestinian "right of return"

Rami G. Khouri

Agence Global
April 20, 2006

Copyright ?2006 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
[republished at PEJ News with permission of AG]

Thomas R. Pickering suggests that a key to peace-making should be Israeli recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees in 1948 to return to their homes.

DOHA, Qatar -- Pickering achieved the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service, at the peak of his 40 years of government service, and more recently worked in the private corporate sector, from which he has just announced his retirement. Speaking in his personal capacity at the inaugural seminar of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, established in conjunction with the Qatar Foundation, he outlined a series of steps that he thought could pave the way for progress in ongoing conflicts in Iran, Iraq and Israel-Palestine.

On the latter, he said that a two-state solution requires a return of 1967 occupied land "approaching 100 percent, with negotiated tradeoffs," giving the Palestinians charge of their own internal security, and agreeing on foreign guarantees for Palestine's external security. Jerusalem's status would be resolved according to the Barak-Clinton ideas of 2000 (essentially: what's Arab is Arab, and what's Jewish is Jewish).

His call for Israel to recognize the right of return of Palestinians who left or were driven out in 1948 is noteworthy. No serving or retired American official of such stature and firsthand personal knowledge of the conflict has ever explicitly called for Israeli recognition of the 1948 Palestinians' right of return. I pursued the matter privately with Pickering after his public talk, and asked if he was referring strictly to the generation of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948. He replied affirmatively, and explained:

"The right of return is controversial and the Israelis don't want to actually admit or honor this right, for the simple reason that they see it as a slippery slope. Over a period of time they think that the Palestinian and Arab objective is to flood Israel with returning refugees, and therefore, in a sense, 'demograph' it out of existence. The real question is whether a right of return could be recognized within negotiated limits. This would give to the Palestinians the recognition they feel is important for themselves, but at the same time protect Israel against a flood of returnees."

How would his proposal work in practice?

"I would say there are three or four steps," he explained. "First, recognize the right of return. Secondly, define it. One way to define it in the narrowest way would be to say that anybody who left in 1948 could return, but not their progeny born after 1948. Another way would be to say anybody who left in 1948 could return, along with some family unifications, up to a limit of, say, 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 or whatever the two sides agree on. Third, the other individuals who were involved over the years in one way or another obviously have to be dealt with in a serious way, including by the international community. There I suggest those others who live elsewhere -- Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Brazil, wherever -- would have a right within some limits set by the Palestinians themselves to go to the new state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. Obviously they could not absorb everybody. So point number four would be an international program, very liberally funded, for relocations, in places like Canada, the United States, Australia, whoever is willing to offer to take individuals who have no place but want to start a new life somewhere and who need international help to do that."

I asked Pickering if he thinks his ideas would be accepted by the parties. He replied: "I came to this answer by asking how a fair and objective observer would try to deal with this problem in an equitable manner, having in mind Palestinian and Israeli interests. I have a sense that when I tried out my ideas, people found objections on both sides, but they were minimalist objections. They were basically objections of trust, or lack of trust, rather than objections of principle."

Pickering's suggestion is an important contribution to the long-running but intractable debate on how to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem according to international legitimacy, while also respecting legitimate Israeli concerns and rights. These are serious ideas that deserve serious discussion, so that they can be refined, improved, rejected, modified or adopted. But they should not be ignored, because the refugee issue remains the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and generating new ideas to resolve it equitably should be high on everyone's priority lists. If perhaps the single most experienced and respected former American career diplomat, with intimate knowledge of both sides in the conflict, grasps the pivotal importance of implementing the Palestinian right of return in a negotiated and equitable manner, the rest of us should listen up.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright ?2006 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
Released: 22 April 2006
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation and The American Prospect, as well as expert commentary by William Beeman, Richard Bulliet, Juan Cole, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Last Updated on Saturday, 22 April 2006 14:24

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