COLLEGE PARK -- To many, it seems perplexing that Palestinians are insisting on Israel's acceptance of the refugees' "right of return" when they should know that no Israeli government will accept the return of more than a limited number of refugees into Israel, lest its Jewish majority be undermined.
Back home, many Palestinians are fearful that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will "sell" their right of return at Camp David, while many Israelis are fearful that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will jeopardize Israel's Jewish character. Although some aspects of these positions can be explained as negotiating postures, these positions are more than tactical.
Despite the apparent gap, Israeli-Palestinian compromise is possible, but only if both sides come to terms with all the aspects of the refugee issue. It is important to differentiate three related aspects, whose confusion has given the impression that a deal is not attainable: the principle of the right of return of refugees, responsibility for the plight of refugees and the settlement of claims for the right of return. On the third aspect, one must also differentiate individual claims from collective claims.
Certainly, the most practical compromise must occur on the issue of settlement of claims, as Israel will not accept the return of most refugees to Israel, and refugees must be offered enough incentives to accept a settlement of their right of return that is consistent with Israel's core interests. But a lasting settlement cannot ignore other aspects of the refugee issue.
Palestinians insist on acknowledgment of their "right of return," which is supported by international law and U.N. resolutions. No one can "give up" someone else's right to return. Indeed, for Israel to settle refugee claims and close the "return" file, the principle will have to be acknowledged. It is in Israel's interest that this issue is settled now lest it be reopened at some later point.
For Palestinians, this acknowledgment is of significant value, regardless of the terms of settlement. "The right of return" has been the single most important issue that has mobilized refugees into a political movement in the past 52 years and has become part of Palestinian identity. It has provided the moral explanation for all the hardship that two generations of refugees have painfully endured. It is a highly emotional issue whose acknowledgment could go a long way toward healing.
Acknowledgment raises questions about responsibility. In part, this issue, too, is highly emotional. To tell refugees that no one is responsible for their homelessness is to place the blame for their pain squarely on their own shoulders.
Israel has taken the position that it is not responsible for the refugee problem, although it acknowledges that the refugee problem was a product of the 1948 war. Israel also notes that there are other parties that also have played a role in the creation and perpetuation of Palestinian homelessness. But there is also no denying that Israel is directly responsible for the homelessness of some of the refugees, as has become accepted in Israel's own text books. Here a formula must be found for acceptance of some responsibility.
In the end, the agreement will succeed only if a workable settlement of claims is reached that is compatible with core Israeli and Palestinian interests. Indeed, part of the Israeli rejection of the principle of the right of return must be tied to fear that acknowledging this right before agreeing on the terms of settlement will weaken Israel's hand.
Therefore, addressing all the aspects of the refugee issue must take place simultaneously. The more comprehensive and universal is the settlement, the better. The Palestinians can offer two things: closing the "collective claims" of Palestinians and agreeing that the new state of Palestine will put forth no future claims to any territories within Israel; and a package of compensation and settlement of claims for individual refugees.
Individual settlement of claims must be voluntary, since it is not even certain that the Palestinian Authority has the legal right to settle individual claims of refugees not under its jurisdiction, such as those in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
To get the widest possible acceptance from individual refugees, the deal must have something for them. There must be financial compensation and options for permanent settlement and citizenship in the Palestinian state, in Arab states or other international locations such as Europe and the United States, as well as being applicants for the limited number of slots that Israel will absorb. This means much thought must go into providing a significant package of individual claims, and the Palestinian Authority should resist the temptation to allocate most of the compensation to collective claims.
In the end, many Israelis and Palestinians will reject any compromise on this issue; this has been a painful and costly conflict that is hard for many to overcome. But if all aspects of the refugee issue can be dealt with simultaneously, an agreement can be found that addresses the core interests of both sides while garnering the support of Palestinian and Israeli majorities.
Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.