This week, Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams are holding their first formal meetings aimed at drawing up a joint document on the major questions to be submitted to the US-sponsored conference in Annapolis in November.
The Palestinian negotiators have all been involved before in I/P negotiations on final status issues, but it is interesting to wonder how Kadima's negotiators - especially those who came from the Likud - will come to terms with the give-and-take required for negotiating the core issues. The person who started me wondering about this was the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, who has made repeated comments to the effect that, under a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, Israel will not accept the return of a single refugee.
This attitude is very different from the way that the refugee issue has been handled in previous negotiations, when the PLO and Labor-led Israeli governments managed to find common ground by basing their talks on pragmatism rather than ideology. Labor governments didn't enter into peace talks out of altruism, but because there is once again an impending non-Jewish majority in mandate Palestine/Greater Israel. Divesting itself of the Occupied Territories through negotiation with the representatives of the millions of Palestinians who live there was their way to ensure that Israel's future would be as a "Jewish democracy", not a minority-ruled sectarian state.
From this Laborite perspective, the main problem posed by the refugees is a practical one: if they return to their former homes in Israel, then there won't be a Jewish majority even within the 1967 borders. The way they handled this was to draw a distinction between the rights of the refugees, and the ways that those rights might be implemented. Israel would acknowledge some responsibility for the refugees' displacement (after all, you can't create a Jewish state in a Palestine without turning a large chunk of the existing population into refugees), and would allow home a symbolic number. For its part, the PLO would accept that the right of return would be implemented primarily through the refugees' rehabilitation in the new state of Palestine, or in third countries, rather than in 1967 Israel. The end result would be that Palestinians would recognize the existence of an Israeli state on the 1967 borders and with a population that is in practice overwhelmingly Jewish, but would not be expected to recognize the legitimacy of their own expulsion, which was the only means by which the Jewish majority could be achieved in the first place.
That was a compromise that was bound to leave some people on both sides dissatisfied. And some former members of the Likud, now about to tackle final status issues as members of a Kadima government, certainly have a problem with it. Ehud Olmert has insisted that Israel has no responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem, which he says was caused by the Arab attack on Israel in 1948. Like Livni, he says that not a single refugee will ever return to Israel.
Now, there are a lot of things that you could say in reponse to Olmert. From a theoretical point of view, you could point out that that any project that aims to create a Jewish state on a land where 95% of the initial population is not Jewish implicitly requires at some point the displacement of that non-Jewish majority, so when that displacement actually happens it's a bit disingenuous to say "Well, that was nothing to do with us". From a legal perspective, you could mention that the right of refugees to return home is guaranteed by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and by Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and that none of these conventions make the right of return dependent upon "who started it". From a historical point of view, you could mention to Olmert that Israel's New Historians working from Israeli archives of the period have found that the expulsion of seven-eighths of the Arab population of Israel proper was apparently deliberate and systematic, rather than a response to attack. And from the point of view of the historical timeline, you could mention that although we talk about some 750,000 Palestinians being made refugees "in the war", about one-third of that total were actually made refugees before the war, in the last year of the mandate, while they were supposedly still under the protection of the British authorities but were nevertheless forced out by Zionists intent on claiming land beyond that assigned to Jewish Palestine under the partition plan of 1947. Even Ehud Olmert would surely find it difficult to argue that the expulsion of Palestinians in 1947 resulted from attacks by Arab armies in 1948. But the point I'm making is that, whatever you think of Olmert's rationale, it is at least open to argument.
You can't say the same thing about Livni, whose position is much less amenable to discussion. She repeated as recently 22 September that not a single refugee can be allowed back into Israel, and gave the following rationale:
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, has stated that "Israel will never allow the return of a single refugee into its territories, in any agreement with the Palestinians".
She said this on Israeli radio and added that the return of the refugees would represent "the beginning of the end of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state"...
That's a very different kind of rationale. Livni is saying that the refugee question is not a practical one about demographics, to be solved in a compromise formula that safeguards a de facto Jewish majority in Israel, but an ideological one. If you allow even one elderly refugee to return home and be reunited with family members after 60 years of separation, that is not a gesture for reconciliation but the end of Israel, because it implies that Palestinians forced out of their homes in what is now Israel actually have rights there. And Livni doesn't believe that. Livni believes that once you declare a Jewish state in Palestine, by definition only Jewish people really have rights there. So there is essentially nothing wrong with expelling as many Palestinians as are necessary to ensure a Jewish majority. Palestinian refugees - by virtue of being non-Jews in a land designated a Jewish state - have no more rights on their ancestral lands than eggs would have in an omelette. Livni cannot allow one elderly granny to return from Shatila to Safsaf because that would challenge the assumption that a Jewish person's right to settle in Palestine automatically trumps the right of a Palestinian already living there; and once you challenge that assumption, the legitimacy of Livni's Zionism collapses.
I am sure that a lot of Israelis think the same way as Livni. But we're not talking about any old Israeli here, we're talking about the Foreign Minister in a government that is about to negotiate on the core issues and, hopefully, find practical and creative ways to resolve them. It is hard to imagine what Livni could possibly contribute to the discussion if she really believes that the refugee issue will be resolved only when the PLO formally recognizes that the rights of a Palestinian living in Palestine are inherently inferior to a Jewish immigrant from anywhere else in the world. It has taken a very long time for I/P negotiators to stumble to the unfinished place they are today, where Palestinians and Israelis can keep their narratives, and yet find practical ways to coexist. If Livni, or any of the former Likud officials now negotiating on behalf of a Kadima government, really think peace will come when the Palestinians can be made to accept the rightness of their own expulsion, that is a profoundly retrograde step. It doesn`t leave the Palestinians with room to do anything at all on refugees, short of adopting Zionism as their negotiating platform.
Obviously some gears are grinding in Livni's head, or else she would still be in the Likud. The fact that she left the Likud for a party whose sole raison d'etre was disengagement suggests she knows the status quo is unsustainable, but her thinking on the refugees shows she is a long way from coming to terms with what sustainability is going to involve. I'm not saying Tzipi Livni isn't capable of a Road to Damascus moment, but right now she seems to be stuck in the ideological mindset of the party she left. As long as she thinks that the goal of negotiations is to make other people believe what you believe, instead of respecting what they believe and finding ways to accommodate each other, I'm not sure she has anything useful to say to the Palestinians.
Photo: African-Americans assert their equal humanity in front of the Tennessee National Guard; Beale St, Memphis, 1968. (Corbis-Bettmann)