Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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Flying kites on the refugees

By Graham Usher

There is something of a shadow-play just now about the various negotiating tracks of the Oslo process, with each side staking out positions the better to test the reactions of the other. Thus, in the run-up to the sixth round of final status talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Ramallah on Monday, the Palestinian Authority leadership announced that it would demand compensation for the damage to its "national assets" in the West Bank and Gaza after 32 years of Israeli occupation. It also declared that there could be no final agreement "if Jerusalem is not accepted as the capital of an independent [Palestinian] state".

Israel ignored both demands, other than to say that the compensation issue could be "included on the agenda" of the final status negotiations. But it is clear that at least one Israeli cabinet minister is becoming increasingly peeved over what he perceives to be Palestinian stonewalling. Addressing a delegation of European Union ambassadors on Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, denounced Palestinian "foot-dragging" over Israel's latest West Bank redeployment, now one week overdue due to the PA's refusal to accept Israel's contention that it has the "absolute right" to determine which lands are to be transferred to Palestinian control. Combined with Israeli anger at Palestinian and Egyptian moves to block any resumption of multilateral negotiations ahead of movement on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the peace process, Levy told the EU envoys that it would be "difficult" for Israel to continue "restraining" itself in the face of such "incitement".

All of this was fairly predictable and fully in line with each side's attempts to lay down red lines for the next phase of negotiations. The only surprise was an apparent breach that occurred within Israeli ranks on the final status issue where there is usually a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus on the right of return of the 4.9 million Palestinian refugees. The breach may be more apparent than real.

During a visit to Shufat refugee camp in Jerusalem on Sunday and in the presence of Faisal Husseini, the PLO executive member responsible for Jerusalem, Labour Knesset member Yossi Katz said that Israel should stop "closing its eyes to reality" when it came to the refugee issue. Rather, "within the framework of the family re-unification [policy], or any other framework agreed upon between the sides," Israel should enable "a percentage, maybe some 100,000 refugees, to return home" to their lands in what was Mandate Palestine but is now Israel.

Palestinian politicians and intellectuals cautiously welcomed Katz's comments as a rare Israeli admission of at least the principle of responsibility for its role in the creation of the refugee problem. "There is still a significant gap between what Yossi Katz says and what Palestinians can accept and international legitimacy requires," Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib told Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper on Sunday. "But at least he is moving, and he is making efforts".

But it was a move too far as far as most Katz's Labour Party colleagues were concerned. Summoning Katz to a "clarification meeting", Labour Party General-Secretary Ran Cohen warned the dissident to refrain from making declarations "that are contrary to the [Labour] party platform and to the government's policy guidelines, and which are not even in [the pro-Oslo] Meretz faction. The Labour Party's official position on the fate of the Palestinian refugees, routinely pronounced by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is that there are "no circumstances" in which the Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to "sovereign Israel" and that a solution to their statelessness should "be found in the countries where they are now living".

Knesset members from the opposition Likud party also pounced on Katz's words, warning that they "undermined the existence of the Israeli state" and calling on Barak to come out "totally against them". Then mid-way through his American tour, the Israeli leader did so, repeating that "clearly Israel will not be accepting Palestinian refugees" within the Green Line. Amid the apparent hue and cry, it was left to Labour's newest Knesset member Collette Abital to put Katz's comments into their real political context.

"Those who have been involved in the various negotiations on refugees over the years know that suggestions [like Katz's] have been broached," she said. Abital's only criticism of her colleague's views was that it was "inappropriate to go public with them before they are official government policy. In negotiations, it is wise not to play all your cards at once," she said.

This would suggest that Katz's comments were less a new departure for the Labour Party than a carefully floated trial balloon to test domestic Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the conception of "return" that is long on symbolism but short on substance. Nor will the fact that the Palestinians responded positively to the ploy, and that Likud denounced it, necessarily hurt the Israeli government. It will simply pave the way to an Israeli-determined solution to the refugee file in which 100,000 Palestinians are "re-unified" with their patrimony at the price of 4.8 million others being separated from it once and for all.

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