Olmert's 2008 proposal on Palestinian refugees – to take a total of 5,000 over 5 years

Of course Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could not have signed on to this stingy proposal when it was tabled by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in their last meeting on 16 September 2008.

Not only is the number of Palestinian refugees that Israel would take back “inside the Green Line” less than Ehud Barak’s previous suggestion [to take back tens of thousands a year, as a “humanitarian gesture”] at Camp David talks in late July 2000, but this is also supposed to extinguish any further mention of the “Right of Return”. At the same Camp David discussions, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he wanted to solve the problem of some 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon first — an idea that the Israeli delegation, who had just completed their unilateral May 2000 withdrawal for almost all of the “security zone” they had created during their 25-year occupation of South Lebanon, did not dismiss out of hand.

It is true that the Barak team said that most of the Palestinian refugees who would want to return would have to do so to the future Palestinian state. [Then, there was some suggestion that Israel would want to have a say in who and how many returned, even to the Palestinian territory = West Bank or Gaza…]

In any case, here is the relaxed way Olmert himself recently described it to Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff in a recent interview which was reported yesterday, here:

“I agreed to absorb into Israel up to 5,000 Palestinian refugees over five years. Why 5,000? It may sound kind of strange, but during the talks between Rice and Abu Mazen he said that he needed the settlement of tens of thousands of refugees inside Israel, and that Ehud Barak had been ready to take in 100,000. She told him that he could get the same number of people as could fit inside the Mukataa at any given moment. We estimated that number to be about 5,000. So that’s how I came up with the number. I’m telling you, if Abu Mazen had been ready to sign on an agreement that would require our absorbing 10,000-15,000 over five years, I would have agreed. It was after all about the number of African illegals who were sneaking across the border every year back then. But all of it, of course, on condition that they would sign an agreement for an ‘end of conflict and end of demands,’ so there would no longer be a ‘right of return.’”

Olmert added that “he explained to Abbas during their talks that Israel could not agree to any solution to the refugee problem according to UN Resolution 194, which in his view had created the Palestinian’s ‘claim of return’ myth. ‘But I said to him, first we will set up a special fund for compensation to the refugees, second, we will accept the road map, which includes in it the Arab peace initiative which also refers to resolution 194 with respect to a solution for the refugee problem. That way you too can claim that Israel accepted the basis of the Arab peace initiative including Resolution 194’.”

And, what did Mahmoud Abbas say?

From Olmert’s account, as reported by Issacharoff, you could get the impression Abbas was only prepared to engage immediately on the Land Swaps proposal… and even on that he hesitated [and cancelled the follow-up meeting of map expert’s scheduled for the next day].

But, a draft “talking-points” document prepared by the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit ahead of the negotiations suggested that Mahmoud Abbas tell Olmert:  “Regarding the 1000 annually for 5 years: while we agree to negotiate the number of returnees in consideration of Israel’s capacity of absorption, this offer is not serious and cannot be accepted. Nonetheless, are you proposing this will be under the right of return, or on humanitarian grounds under your discretion? Given this distinction, who decides, and what would be the criteria for deciding who is included among the returnees?”

Other items on refutees in this “talking-points” document prepared for Abbas to say to Olmert:

  •  What does it mean to acknowledge the suffering of refugees, without reference to responsibility? How is that different from acknowledging the suffering of people as a result of, say, a natural disaster? How do you propose to deal with the issue of responsibility?
  •  If you recognise suffering, why do you refuse to deal with compensation for non-material damages?
  •  Why is the suffering of Israelis relevant to the refugee issue?
  • What does it mean to continue family reunification, and how is this linked to the refugees?

     How do you propose to deal with restitution? How do you offer to deal with the assets of the “Absentees”?

     How do you envisage your participation and contribution to the international mechanism?

This is posted on the Al-Jazeera Palestine Papers website here

Another version of the same Olmert account, also written by Avi Issacharoff this past week but published in Sof Hashavua [a Hebrew-language weekly belonging to the Jerusalem Post group], says that “A senior Palestinian official told Sof Hashavua that Abbas thought Olmert’s proposals for Jerusalem and the right of return were unacceptable”.

These are the same two issues that blocked any agreement between Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000.

But, it seems, Olmert’s proposals on Jerusalem were a step forward, just as his proposals on the Palestinian refugees was a step backwards.

Abbas said that the Jerusalem ideas seemed “serious” and “gave a very serious impression”.  But the Issacharoff reporting makes it seems as if Abbas did not engage at all on the refugee return proposal — which apparenty is not the case, as a leaked Palestinian document [see below], dated May 2008, from the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit says: “considering the status of the talks between President Abu Mazen and PM Olmert on the number of Palestinian returns to Israel, we have recently asked an expert to work on demographic projections of the Israeli population (and its Jewish and Arab components) which will take into account various scenarios for the returns. Our objective is to try to assess rationally Israel’s absorption capacity on the basis of its past immigration figures and demographic realities. It is too early to indicate whether this study will be able to prove whether Israel’s absorption capacity is much higher than what Israeli irrational reactions on the topic might suggest…

While the word “irrational” might seem a bit rough, it should be noted that Israelis have said that any acceptance of the return of Palestinian refugees would mean war, because it would threaten the existence of the State of Israel.

Another document in the Palestine Papers leaked to Al-Jazeera and now posted on their website here shows that Israeli negotiators gave the Palestinian negotiators an advance a summary of the “package” Olmert was to propose, in September, to Abbas. On refugees, it said that “Israel would acknowledge the suffering of – but not responsibility for – Palestinian refugees … and Israel would contribute to the compensation of the refugees through the mechanism and based on suffering … Compensation, and not restitution or return (apart from the 5,000), would be the only remedy”.

According to Issacharoff in Sof Hashavua: “‘There were internal Palestinian talks about the offer’, the official said, adding ‘These are weighty issues. The natural thing for Abbas to do would be not to sign immediately and to act responsibly and return to consult with the Fatah leadership…Over the last few years Abbas has said he was willing to renew the talks from the point at which they ended with Olmert’, the official added”. The Sof Hashavua account was translated into English and published by the Jerusalem Post here.

In a report published two weeks earlier, here, in the Times of Israel, Avi Issacharoff revealed what Yasser Abed Rabbo told him about his meeting [two and a half years after the last Olmert-Abbas meeting] with Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in his adviser Yitzhak Molcho’s house in Ceasaria: after Abed Rabbo said he had been born in Yaffa, “Netanyahu literally jumped up. ‘You were born in Jaffa?’ he asked. And he looked at me and said, “I promise you that after all this is over, I’ll allow you to return to live in Jaffa’…”

Abed Rabbo told Issacharoff that in the February 2011 meeting with Netanyahu:
“I said to him that I was in the secret talks with [prime minister Ehud] Olmert and he showed us the map. ‘We were ready for land swaps of 1.9 percent and Olmert demanded 6.4%. That’s what we arrived at. We can start the conversations from here.’ I told Bibi that in the final meeting with Olmert in his office in Jerusalem, he said to us explicitly, ‘I’ll leave the negotiations file to my successor.’ And he told us that the one who would inherit it would be Bibi. He explained that he likes Tzipi Livni and she’s very nice but she won’t succeed in becoming prime minister. ‘I’ll leave it for Bibi,’ Olmert said. Bibi jumped up again and said, “I never saw any file’ … I spoke to him about Jerusalem and about the refugees. I told him that Arafat already told [president] Bill Clinton at Camp David that his ultimate preference was to solve the refugee problem in Lebanon. Netanyahu didn’t rule anything out. He mostly listened. He asked me about the idea of a joint committee to manage issues related to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — as Olmert had suggested — and I laughed and said that I see it looks like they did leave him a file, and he laughed. I told him it’s a good idea to discuss it. In the end I said to him, ‘If you want to start something serious, if you agree to the 1967 borders as a basis, including Jerusalem, then we can talk about the other things’.”

Returning to Olmert’s meeting with Abbas, the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit had looked a few months earlier [in May 2008] at the effect on Israel’s demographics of absorbing returning Palestinian refugees according to “two scenarios: one assuming a rate of 41,000 returnees per year; the other assuming a total return of 2,000,000 refugees”. The leaked document describing this examination is posted here on the Al-Jazeera Palestine Papers website reports that “Our consultant took into account a figure of 2,000,000 effective returns. His conclusion is that, in this scenario, the overall Palestinian group in Israel would reach, in 50 years, 35.7% of the Israeli population. Therefore, with the return of 2,000,000 Palestinian refugees, 2/3rd of Israel’s population would remain Jewish.  Please note that these scenarios do not take into account the possible continuation of Jewish immigration during the relevant time periods. The figures obtained are therefore conservative and it is likely that the percentages of Palestinians in the Israeli total population would be even lower than the ones indicated above”.

Another part of the same leaked document [dated May 2008] says that “as to refugee compensation, the figure we arrive at for all property damages suffered by 1948 refugees is around USD 280 billion. This figure does not include a valuation of refugee non-material damages, to which they are also entitled (this relates to their suffering caused by their longstanding displacement and dispossession). However, this number is already far beyond the estimates which were put forward in the past…”

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