by Dan Zakay
and Yechiel Klar
By deferring core issues related to Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the 1993 Oslo agreements to the permanent status negotiations in 2000, negotiators had hoped that the benefits earned by both parties over these years would facilitate discussions of issues which had blocked all Israeli-Palestinian talks since 19791. Despite these hopes, there was in fact no growth in public debate on these issues, as the following analyses show.
A simple indicator of an issue’s prominence on the public agenda is the extent to which it is mentioned in newspapers. The average number of monthly mentions of the Right of Return in Ha’aretz (the issues oriented daily) between January 94 and June 99 was less than five. In the first Barak year (July 1999 to June 2000), during which the permanent status issue returned to the public agenda, that average more than doubled (11.6). The number of monthly mentions of Right of Return between July and December 2000, the period of Camp David and the outbreak of the Intifada, rose to 37 (peaking in July and December) and the figure remained relatively high throughout 2001 (32) and the months January-June 2002 (33). Thus the Right of Return became substantially more of a public issue after the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of the second Intifada.
A second indication of an issue’s prominence is the number of mentions received in public surveys. In the “peace index” survey, conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, which started in June l994 and measures public opinion on all the issues related to the peace process, questions regarding the Palestinian refugees appeared for the first time in October 99 (that is, only after some 65 monthly surveys). This indicates the low priority given to this issue, at least in the survey takers’ view.
Participants in the October 1999 survey were asked to name issues of paramount importance in the forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Both sides considered the fate of Jerusalem most important (48 percent), while only 5 percent of respondents named the refugee problem (14 percent chose a Palestinian state, 12 percent borders, 6 percent water and 5 percent said settlements). Similarly, most respondents considered Jerusalem the most difficult issue to resolve (71 percent). The Palestinian state and the refugees (7 percent each) lagged far behind but still ahead of the other issues.
How can these results be explained? One hypothesis is that the turbulent nature of the post-Oslo years did not provide a good forum for discussion of the perennial problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A second reason could be that most Israelis were not sufficiently aware of the centrality of the return issue for the Palestinians, given that virtually all segments of Israeli society accepted the outcome of the 1948 war (in which the refugee problem was created) as a fait accompli.
A third hypothesis is that the lack of public debate on this issue reflects the fact it is potentially the most threatening part of the conflict for Israelis. The implementation of the Right of Return is perceived as ending Israel’s existence as a fundamentally Jewish state, thus the lack of debate may reflect public denial of this threat. A fourth possibility is that many people (mainly supporters of Oslo) assumed that the Palestinians, by entering into this process, signalled their readiness to find a solution to the refugee issue which would also be acceptable to Israel2. Although this might be seen as shortsighted in retrospect (it was criticized all along by right-wing opponents, notably Benny Begin3), it has been argued4 that during the Oslo years (1993-2000), the Jerusalem and Al Aqsa issues were constantly reiterated in Arafat’s public speeches while the Right of Return was de-emphasized, a deliberate strategy based on the recognition of Israel’s unwillingness to compromise on the Right of Return5.
Summer 2000: A Turning Point?
Israeli insouciance to the potential impact of the refugee issues on the permanent status agreement underwent major changes during the summer and fall of 2000, when the Palestinian negotiating position became public following the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of the second Intifada. The main features defining the Palestinian position6 were: 1) “Israel must recognize its responsibility for the forced displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people and for the subsequent prevention of their return to their homes”. 2) “Israel must recognize the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Every refugee should be permitted to return if he or she chooses to do so”. 3) “[...] Israel must compensate the refugees for the damage inflicted upon them as a result of their dispossession and displacement.” Compensation was also demanded for the loss of Palestinian public property, as well as for the Arab host countries. We are not aware of any direct assessment of Israeli public reaction to these positions, but in December 2000, participants of the peace index survey were asked their views on the Clinton proposal (which stated that the right of return would be implemented in the Palestinian State, and Israel would absorb tens of thousands of refugees for family unification and humanitarian reasons). Seventy-seven percent of Jewish respondents opposed this part of the plan (24 percent were in favor and 6 percent had no opinion).
The New Survey - March 2002
To explore current attitudes in the Jewish Israeli public, we conducted a telephone survey of a representative sample of 312 members of the adult Jewish population (162 women and 150 men). The survey was conducted in March 20027.
First, we looked at the public’s grasp of the importance of the Right of Return among the Palestinian demands. Respondents were asked; “To the best of your knowledge, what are the Palestinians’ main conditions for a permanent agreement with Israel?” The most frequent response (55.0 percent) was “an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders “. The second highest (26.4 percent) was “the implementation of the Right of Return”, the third was Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (16.4 percent), and the fourth “the establishment of a Palestinian state” (14.1 percent). These answers did not vary to any great extent as a function of age, gender, educational level or political inclination, but clearly show a much greater understanding of the perceived centrality of the issue for Palestinians.
To assess the impact of the four issues mentioned above on the degree of willingness to adopt a permanent status agreement, we conducted an auxiliary study. Seventy-six Jewish Israeli university students (aged 20-37) were presented with 16 permutations of a possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement, where each perceived demand is granted or not granted. Willingness to endorse each possible agreement was assessed and a statistical regression analysis revealed that granting of the Right of Return was clearly the major barrier to our participants’ willingness to accept a solution.
To further explore this, respondents were asked; “In your opinion, is a permanent and real agreement between Israel and the Palestinians possible without finding a solution, acceptable to both sides, to the right of return issue?” The response scale ranged from 0 “not at all possible”, to 10 “absolutely possible”. About 50 percent of respondents thought this would be largely impossible (0-3), 21 percent thought there is some possibility and 29 percent thought it would be possible to a great extent (7-10).
Although it is difficult to separate participants’ general optimism or pessimism about the ‘resolvability’ of the conflict, in principle, the general recognition of the importance of this issue for a permanent solution is noteworthy.
This study indicates that, unlike October 1999, finding a solution acceptable to both sides for the right of return issue is widely acknowledged as a key condition for any potential Israeli-Palestinian permanent agreement. At the same time, the need to implement this demand is perceived as the major obstacle to any agreement.
Reactions to the Right of Return
We asked our respondents to list their first thoughts in response to the term “the Right of Return”. We also asked them to list the potential consequences, in their minds, of its implementation. The vast majority of the responses were highly negative, including terms such as “destruction of the state”, “a national disaster”, “massacre of the Jews” and even “holocaust”. Although the percentage of emotionally charged responses decreased with education and income level, and was lower among the secular population and supporters of center and left parties, negative reactions were the rule in all the segments of the sample.
Only a small fraction (7.7 percent in the first question and 5.8 percent in the second) provided ‘positive’ responses (e.g. expressed understanding of the “right of return”, indicating potentially positive results).
Understanding the Claim for Return
To what degree do the respondents accurately understand the scope of the Palestinian claim for return? When asked; “To whom does the right refer?”, 29.3 percent of the participants said the it refers to 1948 refugees, 22.8 percent answered that it alludes to refugees in general, and for 7.1 percent it meant refugees and family members. Nine percent of respondents stated that the right of return refers to Palestinians (without mentioning refugees), and 1.9 percent answered that it refers to the Arabs. 29.9 percent did not explicitly mention this aspect of the issue.
We then asked; “To where is the return intended?” 23.3 percent of respondents stated that it is to the refugees’ original places of residence, 22.2 percent felt that return is demanded for the areas in the greater Land of Israel (or Palestine), 12.5 percent believed that return is demanded for areas within the State of Israel, but not necessarily to the original places of residence, and 3.2 percent answered that it is to a Palestinian state or the occupied territories. 38.9 percent did not refer to this issue.
We also asked respondents to specify the number of refugees and family members that would be entitled to this right, according to the Palestinian demand. While 51.3 percent of the sample could not specify a number, 11.9 percent believed it was less than a million, 25.8 percent thought it was between one and two million, and 11.0 percent said the number was between two and six million.
In sum, our respondents generally understood that the Right of Return refers to Palestinian refugees8 and that the demand is for a return to original places of residence or to greater Palestine. However, the respondents tended to underestimate the number of refugees to which the demand refers9. Thus, the perceived scope of the claim for return by our respondents is, in fact, much smaller than the Palestinian position presented in the summer of 2000.
Support for Elements of the Solution
To explore the solutions Israelis may be ready to accept, we approached the respondents with an open-ended question on their opinions regarding “the solution to the ‘right of return’ issue that will allow for a permanent resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians”. More than a quarter (26.5 percent - 36 percent among right-wing supporters and 11 percent among left-wing supporters) responded that there is no possible solution, or that if there is one, it is transfer or war. 17.1 percent suggested returning refugees to the Palestinian State and 16.1 percent proposed absorption in Arab states. Around 20 percent suggested monetary restitution or assistance, and 9 percent put forward granting return to a limited number of refugees into Israel.
We also presented the respondents with the three key demands (return, responsibility and reparation) as well as a fourth element (return only to the Palestinian state) and asked them to rate their approval or disapproval of each demand. We divided the responses into three categories: “reject” (0-3), “intermediately accept” (4-6) and “accept” (7-10).
For return of a limited number of refugees to Israeli territory, 23.9 percent (60.0 percent of left-wing supporters and 16.0 percent right-wing supporters) were ready to accept the return of a limited number of refugees to Israel in places that would be assigned to them. 19.0 percent intermediately approved this possibility, and 57.1 percent rejected it.
Those who did not flatly reject the return of a limited number of refugees to Israel (i.e. gave a response greater than 0) were asked what would be the highest number of refugees they would be prepared to see return. 48.8 percent (out of 54.8 percent asked this question) could not specify a number, 19.5 percent said up to 20,000 refugees, and 11.0 percent stated up to 50,000 refugees. The remaining percentage (20.8 percent, or 11.4 percent of the entire sample) mentioned numbers greater than 500,000.
In terms of reparations and responsibility, 29 percent accepted the idea of reparation payments to the refugees (20.5 percent intermediately accepted this possibility and 50.5 percent rejected it), a similar percentage (27 percent) accepted the idea that Israel would accept responsibility and publicly apologize, but without actual implementation of the “right of return” (16.3 percent intermediately accepted this option and 56.7 percent rejected it).
Meanwhile, 50.8 percent agreed to a return of the refugees only to the areas of the Palestinian state, 18.7 percent intermediately accepted this proposal, and 30.4 percent rejected it.
The Perceived Morality of the Right of Return
Another important aspect of the attitude toward the Right of Return is its ‘morality’. Respondents were asked: “To what extent, in your opinion, is the Palestinian demand for the Right of Return moral or immoral?” Again we divided the responses into three categories: “immoral” (0-3), “intermediately moral” (4-6) and “moral” (7-10).
Some 47.8 percent of respondents viewed the demand as immoral, 21.9 percent as intermediately moral and 30.3 percent as moral, with these perceptions related to respondents’ political stance. Among supporters of right-wing parties, 21.1 percent thought that the right of return claim was moral, and this figure rose to 52.3 percent for left-wing supporters. As might be expected, we found that the perceived morality of the claim for return was positively related to the tendency to accept various solutions to the problem. However, only 25 percent of those who perceived the Right of Return as a moral claim expressed a high level of readiness for its implementation (as a final component of a permanent solution agreement). Fifty percent of those who perceived it as moral agreed to the return of a limited number of refugees to Israel proper (compared to 21.9 percent among those who thought it intermediately moral, and 9.9 percent for whom it is immoral). However, there was no significant difference between those who endorsed the claim as moral and those who did not, in terms of the number of refugees allowed to return. Interestingly, 20 percent of those who endorsed the morality of the Right of Return also reacted towards it as “the destruction of the state and a national disaster” and 15.6 percent of these characterized it as an impossible demand.
Thus, despite strong opposition to the Right of Return, about half of the respondents did not altogether reject the morality of this claim. However, while perceived morality is associated with an endorsement of solutions for the refugee problem, the relationship is weak.
The picture that emerges from our study indicates that attitudes towards the Right of Return are multifold. First, the term “right of return” evokes deeply negative emotions in the Jewish-Israeli public such as “destruction”, “disaster” and even “holocaust”, while implementing this demand would be perceived as leading to the end of the Jewish nature of the state of Israel, and by some to dire personal consequences such as death and exile. Second, there seems to be a greater understanding now that this is a major Palestinian demand, and that without resolving it in a manner acceptable to both sides, no permanent agreement is possible. Third, about half of the Jewish-Israeli public somewhat accepts the morality of the claim for return, however, this has only a limited effect on the range of acceptable solutions endorsed by respondents.
As for potential solutions, the most accepted is the return of the refugees to the Palestinian State. A decreasing portion of the sample was ready for the payment of reparations, or acceptance of responsibility and apology (but without actual return). Finally, about a quarter was willing to grant a limited number of refugees return to Israel (to assigned locations only). The most frequently cited figures ranged from 20, 000 to 50, 000.
Thus the scope of solutions to which Jewish-Israelis are willing to agree, according to these results, is a far cry from the Palestinian position cited earlier. The unfortunate conclusion must be that the Right of Return will continue to be a major obstacle to a successful permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
1 Yossi Beilin (1997)’: Touching Peace”, Miskal (Heb) p. 84, Danny Rubinstein, Panim, 17 (Summer 2001), pp. 23-29
2 Even at the first stages of talks, when the core conflict issues were still untouched, negotiators envisioned the situation as a radical change in Israeli-Palestinian history and a possible end of the conflict. Yossi Beilin, Touching Peace p. 87, Uri Savir (1998) “The Process” Miskal, Heb, p. 95.
3 Zeev Binymin Begin (2000) A Sad Story, Miskal (Heb)
4 Danny Rubinstein, Panim, 17 (Summer 2001), pp. 23-29.
5 Rubinstein ibid
6 As detailed by the official PLO negotiation affairs website; http://www.nad-plo.org/
7 Field work was conducted by the B. Cohen Institute for Public Opinion Research in Tel Aviv University. The sampling error is +5.6 percent.
8 A Palestinian refugee is defined as: “Someone who resided in Palestine for at least two years before 1948, lost his home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948-49 war and now lives in the Gaza strip, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon” (p. 86, Leon D. (2001). The right of return: different approaches to a crucial issue, Palestine-Israel Journal, 8(2) 86-96)
9 According to UNRWA there are about 3.7 million refugees today, including the first, second, and third generations of the 1948 refugees. Some claim that could reach 5 million, if all Arab refugees are included (ibid).