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Right of return and international law– why the Clinton Parameters are a problem

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Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist who blogs at Promised Land , has a post up supporting the idea of an Obama administration imposed “peace plan” based (at least as a starting point) on the “Clinton Parameters” and disagrees with my negative assessment of the plan. He raises good points that should be debated and talked about, and the issues Sheizaf raises are ones that divide those on the political left who care about bringing an end to the Israeli occupation and seeing justice for Palestinians.

First, Sheizaf says:

I assume the Clinton Parameters would serve as a starting point for negotiations on an actual agreement (that what was supposed to happen in Camp David), but even if they were to be implemented as they are, I think opposing them would be a grave mistake, and a move that would play right into the hands of those who wish to prolong Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza.

If the “Clinton Parameters” were to serve as a starting point, as Sheizaf states, what would an end point be? It’s not hard to imagine that if the base of negotiations start with a proposal that is already, in my opinion, unfair and unjust for Palestinians, then any agreement coming out of that would be even more unfair. It’s the nature of the power relations between the two sides: Israel, backed by the United States, is in an exponentially better position than the Palestinians when sitting down at the negotiating table. And I don’t buy that the Obama administration is or will be an “honest broker,” and that they will continue to side with the Israelis (This is more likely with a Labor-led government than with Netanyahu, but the point remains. It’s not as if Labor is much better than Likud.)

On refugees, Sheizaf argues that the most Israelis, be they on the left or the right, do not accept the right of Palestinians to return and that it would have to be imposed on Israel, and that implementing the right of return is logistically problematic or impossible.

What’s missing from Sheizaf raising objections to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland is two fundamental things: international law, and the preference of the Palestinian people themselves. International law is clear that the Palestinians have a right to return to the land that was taken away from them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguably one of the most important documents in the post-World War Two era, states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 unambiguously calls for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Subsequent U.N. documents have reaffirmed this right.

As for the preferences of the Palestinian people, it’s clear the vast majority of them have no interest in giving up their right to return. The organization OneVoice published an April 2009 poll that found that 92% of Palestinians find it essential or desirable to have the right of return and compensation, and “the prospect of ‘An Israeli recognition of the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, while most refugees return to the West Bank or Gaza and some return to Israel (1948)’ was ‘essential or desirable’ for a majority of Palestinians at 53% and ‘unacceptable’ for only 23%.”

I’m not an absolutist, and ultimately, a just agreement on refugees will have to be negotiated between Palestinians and Israelis. But we, especially as privileged Jews, can’t just dismiss Palestinian claims on refugees.

The elephant in the room, then, is the question of Zionism and the desirability of maintaining an ethnically exclusive Jewish State on land stolen from Palestinians. The arguments against the right of return rest on Israeli fears that the Jewish State will be no more. I’m a Jewish-American, and I don’t have as much of a direct stake in the resolution to this problem as Sheizaf does, but it’s giving in to racism if we use as a justification the maintenance of a Zionist state to deny Palestinians their rights. In terms of a solution to the conflict, I don’t think partition is workable anymore, and am a proponent of a one-state or bi-national solution. Ultimately, though, that decision rests with Palestinians and Israelis.

I don’t purport to offer an detailed solution to just how a right to return would be implemented. But let’s not dismiss Palestinian concerns so easily. International law should be the baseline for a resolution.

Sheizaf also says:

The idea that “nor Obama neither the PLO chairman can deny the refugees’ right of return” simply echoes the Israeli rigth-wing mantra that no Israeli leader can give up parts of land because “they belong to the entire Jewish people”. If the leader of PLO can’t sign an agreement with Israel or declare independence, who can?

There is no equivalency between the claim that “Greater Israel” belongs to the Jewish People only, and the Palestinian refugees’ right to return. Why? Again, look at international law: there is no enshrined right for Jews to settle in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.  There is an enshrined, legal right for Palestinians to return.

One last response to Sheizaf’s post. He says:

As for the other the reasons Kane notes for opposing the Clinton Parameters, they are simply absurd. Having several Israeli monitoring stations for three years is the thing that should make us join Netanyahu in opposing a settlement? Even when the peace agreement with Egypt was signed it gave Israel around two years to dismantle its settlements and clear army bases. Almost any international agreement works in stages. Is that such a problem?

I don’t think this is “absurd.” If we’re talking about a demilitarized Palestinian state, why should Israel have any type of military presence within the West Bank? Of course, I understand that these things take time. But it’s a legitimate concern to have, and we should question why Israel should reserve the right to maintain a military presence while Palestinians wouldn’t have a military under the “Clinton Parameters.”

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