The apparent assumption on the part of American and Israeli negotiators that there can be a trade-off between some form of limited Palestinian sovereignty over parts of East Jerusalem and the right of return for about 3.5 million Palestinian refugees is invalid. The right of return, contained in U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948 and explicitly supported by the U.S. government until the 1992 Ottawa meeting on refugees, cannot be so easily dropped.
Demands for the right of return long predate the peace process, and Palestinians as well as Arab and Islamic governments have never wavered in supporting it. Today, there is talk in the West Bank and Gaza about a "refugee intifada," an uprising launched in the name of the right of return.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is aware of the dangers of not resolving the refugee problem. An agreement that does not address the right of return equitably would delegitimize the Palestinian Authority and Arafat and create serious problems between Israel and its neighbors that host substantial numbers of Palestinians refugees--Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Arafat's popularity has eroded over the last few years mostly because of poor governance, a failed economy and accusations that he has repeatedly made deals with Israel that, despite Palestinian concessions, Israel has routinely failed to implement.
Forcing Arafat to accept an agreement that does not incorporate the right of return will produce an agreement that will wither away. In addition, not resolving the refugee problem will further damage Washington's role as a mediator in a region where the mood is one of defiance.
There are two complex and related questions that must be answered: How can the Palestinians' right of return be reconciled with Israel's refusal to accept this principle, and how do you devise a practical mechanism capable of implementing the principle?
A first step would be an explicit Israeli acknowledgment of its share of moral and legal responsibility for Palestinian refugees. Such an acknowledgment would create a psychological breakthrough that would go far to soften the Palestinian insistence on the principle that every refugee from 1948 should be repatriated within Israel.
For their part, the Palestinians have already accepted a crucial limitation on the absolute right of return through explicit acceptance of Israel's sovereign existence. This effectively laid the groundwork for acceptance of other options such as compensation for property seized by Israel in 1948 and resettlement in the Palestinian state or elsewhere. Israel's acknowledgment of moral responsibility for the origin of the refugee problem will make these options, which fall short of total repatriation, more palatable to Palestinians, who will otherwise always feel that their historic claims for repatriation have gone unheeded.
Resolution of the refugee problem will require the establishment of an international agency with the authority to plan and direct the action necessary for the implementation of a comprehensive refugee settlement.
The refugees must have a real choice about their future, which will not necessarily include settlement for all of them within Israel. Israel must be assured that it will face no further claims after a final agreement on refugees is reached. Arab states with large numbers of refugees must be assured that their absorption of certain numbers will be supported by Israel and the world community through assistance programs benefiting both the refugees and their host countries.
The U.S. and Israel must come to terms with the reality that there can be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and therefore between Israel and its Arab neighbors, if the refugee problem is not solved in all its dimensions.