Facilitating a Middle East Peace Deal Now: The Refugee Issue

Iceland and Sweden will accept for resettlement a couple hundred Palestinian refugees stuck on the Iraq-Syria border with nowhere to go because neither state will take them. Good for Iceland and Sweden.

(Insert snark here about the eternal devotion of the Arab states to the cause of Palestinian refugees.).

But we should actually think of this as a model.

I have long argued that the hardest sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not land, not Jerusalem, not settlements, not security, but refugees (or their descendants, whom some consider refugees and others don’t). Israel says it can’t accept the refugees because it would destroy its demographic basis; the Palestinians say essentially that that’s your problem. In my view, the Taba talks in early 2001 broke up over this issue more than any other.

One can appreciate any Palestinian leader’s political problem here, apart from the ideological claim (which I believe is doubtful): you’ve got hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants stuck in refugee camps waiting for redress. Yes, many of these camps are cities. But their residents justifiably feel trapped in them, stateless and homeless. So if a Palestinian leader accepts a very limited or symbolic right of return, he’s immediately got an enormous political problem on his hands, especially because he’s been promising for years that the refugees will be able to return.

A possible partial way to begin to alleviate this problem is for western countries to start accepting more of these refugees themselves, not as part of an overall settlement, but now. If the United States decided to accept all those who actually were living in British Mandate Palestine in 1948 and were expelled as part of the war, this would amount to about 60,000 people, easily within the ability of our country to absorb.

In my view, the psychological effect of this could be significant. Not only would the United States be taking proactive measures to alleviate a genuine humanitarian crisis, and demonstrative its seriousness in assisting the Palestinians, but it would also be making life a lot easier for any sensible and courageous Palestinian leader (currently a null set) who wants to strike a deal. If the European countries that so loudly talk about the problem would do the same (at least in part), it might actually advance things.

While the parties themselves will have to reach a final status accord, other countries don’t have to wait for them to move ahead.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.