The Refugee Problem at the Peace Conferences, 1949-2000
Conferences aimed at resolving the refugee issue have taken place sporadically from the creation of the problem until the present day. The first conference was convened by the Palestine Conciliation Committee (PCC) in 1949, with the most recent taking place at Camp David in summer 2000. None have proven successful. The main claim of this article is that the refugee problem was the basis of the disagreement between Israel and the Arab world at Lausanne and that it was this problem, and not the issue of Jerusalem, that remained the main stumbling block at the Camp David Conference 51 years later.

Three decisive events in the history of the conflict led up to the Lausanne Conference. The first was the 1947-49 war in which some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees outside Israeli territory. The second was the Israeli government's decision on June 16, 1948 that the refugees would not be permitted to return to their homes but that Israel would be prepared to pay compensation for their abandoned property.
The third was UN resolution 194, passed on December 11, 1948, which established the PCC. Under point 11 of the resolution, the General Assembly, "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of, or damage to, property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible". This UN resolution has become the point of reference for Israel, the refugees, the Arab states and mediators trying to find a solution to the problem.

The Lausanne Conference, April-September 1949

Although a number of refugee delegations were present, they failed to become major players in the negotiations. As the Arabs refused to talk directly with Israel, the PCC sat separately with each delegation. In a bid to break Arab hostility, Israel was requested to make a good will gesture towards the refugees and therefore it publicly announced its readiness to promote the payment of compensation to the Palestinian refugees for their abandoned property. But pressure was also exerted on it to accept the return of a number of refugees. Israel staunchly opposed any such move and the Lausanne discussions came to a dead end. But in July 1949, a surprising Israeli proposal was put forward - to accept the return of 100,000 refugees to Israel. Archival sources now available show that Israel never had any intention of implementing this proposal. It was greeted at home by a storm of public opposition and a heated Knesset debate which underlined for Ben Gurion, and all successive governments, Israeli society's fierce opposition to the Right of Return. At the end of September 1949 the PCC, following several futile attempts to renew negotiations, was compelled to disband the Conference.

The Geneva Conference January 1950

This conference aimed to resolve practical questions, such as what was to happen to refugees' money frozen in Israeli banks. Negotiators managed to make progress on this issue and on refugee family reunions - until Israel demanded that in order to continue the discussions, the Arab states had to commit themselves to peace with Israel. The Arab states in turn demanded that Israel first had to accept UN resolution 194. Israel rejected this and refused to return to the Conference.

The Paris Conference September-November 1951
In autumn 1951, the PCC made its final attempt to hold a peace conference. Moshe Sharett, who was representing Israel in Paris, had been authorized by the government to reject the PCC as a mediating body, to work for direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, and to explore the possibility of discussing compensation separately from an overall peace agreement, a decision the Israeli government had taken a year earlier.
Ben-Gurion and Sharett were surprised to find the PCC had left in proposals for an Israeli gesture to allow part of the refugees to return. Ben-Gurion interpreted this as imposing responsibility on Israel for the refugee problem, which he vehemently rejected. Israel thus retreated from its original intention to promote compensation payments and fought the PCC's proposals. As at Lausanne, the Arab states hardened their position by demanding the return of all refugees and Israel's recognition of this right, prior to signing a peace agreement. The Paris Conference had reached stalemate. This bitter experience brought the work of the PCC to an end and for many years no further committee-based effort was made to mediate between Israel and its neighbors.

The Geneva Conference, December 1973- January 1974

In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initiated a new Conference, again in Geneva, and tried to persuade the parties to win partial achievements by avoiding discussions of an overall solution. While Kissinger managed to make some advances, the conference itself was a failure. Opening on December 21, 1973, it was seen as more ceremonial than practical5 and was not reconvened after January 2, 1974. In Kissinger's protracted efforts to bring states which did not recognize each other to sit together, it was remarkable that the Palestinians were not even invited to the conference, because of Israel's incontrovertible opposition to their presence6. The major powers were able to coerce the Arab states and Israel to attend a common conference, but they were unable to achieve anything substantial without a Palestinian delegation present or without discussing the refugee problem.

Camp David, September 1978

In 1977, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin were elected US President and Israeli Prime Minister respectively. Israel had by now a plan to remove Egypt from the circle of combatants by signing an agreement with it, separate from the negotiations being carried out with the rest of the Arab world. Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, was, for his own reasons, willing to accept such a deal.
His visit to Israel in 1977 compelled the Americans to accept this separatist approach. As a result of the breakthrough in the Israeli-Egyptian channel, Egypt was seen as having broken Arab unity in the anti-Israel struggle and Sadat was accused of betraying the Arab world. Hence he strove to win concessions from Israel on both the Palestinian question and Jerusalem. In a meeting between Begin and Sadat in December 1977 in Ismaliya, Begin realized among other things that Sadat was more committed to the Palestinian cause than had first appeared. While Begin saw autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza as a final settlement, Sadat saw it as a first step toward a Palestinian state8. After this failure, deadlock persisted until summer 1978 when the US invited Begin and Sadat to the Camp David Conference.

The conference opened on September 5, 1978. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Begin wanted to discuss Sinai with Sadat. But the peace plan Sadat presented at the first meeting of the three leaders included a solution to the Palestinian problem along with an item determining that the Palestinian refugees would be entitled to exercise their right to choose between return or compensation, under the terms of UN resolution 194. The document was rejected. Carter sided with the Israelis, feeling that the Egyptian offer would not facilitate an agreement.

By September 7, deadlock loomed10. Begin was asked to give up the Israeli settlements in Sinai, while Weizman thought Sadat could not reach any arrangement without first finding some solution to the Palestinian problem11. According to Dayan, Egypt's Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Osama el-Baz, strongly supported the right of the 1948 refugees to return to Israel under UN resolutions, and also wanted to see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Dayan proposed a plan which would allow Israel to expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while allowing some 150,000 1967 refugees to return to their homes. Begin, however, did not accept connecting the freezing of settlements with any other subject. By the end of the Conference, Begin had agreed to evacuate Sinai and the Israeli settlements there, as well as granting full autonomy to the Palestinian residents in the West Bank and Gaza for a five-year transition period, during which the parties would discuss a permanent solution. Israel finally agreed that Palestinian representatives from the West Bank or Gaza Strip could participate in the autonomy negotiations, while reserving the right to disqualify any representative it found unacceptable.

The decisions taken at the conference caused the resignation of leading Israeli and Egyptian representatives12. The 1978 Camp David meeting symbolized the end of attempts to solve the Palestinian problem. Moreover, concentrating on the question of autonomy, as well as keeping the PLO out of the Palestinian delegation, clearly put the refugee question outside the realms of negotiations.

The Madrid Conference October-November 1991

After the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979, the 1980s saw peace negotiations grind to a halt. Early in 1991, after the end of the Gulf War, US Secretary of State James Baker tried to bring the parties together at an international conference. Israel demanded Palestinian representatives come only from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Baker persuaded the Arab states and the Palestinians to accept this, with compromises also demanded from Israel.

The Madrid Conference opened on October 30, 199114. Bilateral and multilateral channels of discourse were planned on subjects including the economy, water, disarmament and refugees, but when Israel met the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation for the first time, its leader, Heidar Abed el-Shafi, demanded the return of the refugees under the terms of resolution 194. Israel immediately opposed this. The discussions were therefore brief, and for the next two years, Israel refused to conduct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. However, this dead end did lead to behind the scenes negotiations, which in turn led to the Oslo agreement.

Camp David July 2000

Two important steps preceded this conference. The first was the signing of the 1993 Declaration of Principles on interim self-government arrangements (otherwise known as the Oslo Accords) between Israel and the PLO. Article VI, paragraph three laid down that five subjects: Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements, borders, and relations and cooperation with other neighbors - would be dealt with only in the final agreement. The period of discussions would last five years, during which mutual confidence between the parties would be built. No form for a permanent agreement was determined.

While the official Oslo accords delayed discussion on the refugee question, a second document the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement dealt with this fundamentally. Item 7 of the discussions included a mutual understanding between the parties of each other's difficulties with the subject of the Right of Return, with neither side giving up its principled stand on the issue. Most of the item dealt with a compensation and rehabilitation mechanism, intended to ensure that in practice the Right of Return would be less worthwhile and attractive to the refugees than rehabilitation either in their present home, or in a third country.

But neither Beilin nor Abu Mazen, nor any of their representatives, signed this agreement, nor has it ever been officially published19. Yasser Arafat didn't supported it, neither did the three Israeli prime ministers who had to deal with it. Rabin was assassinated before it was presented to him; Shimon Peres20 rejected it; and the director general of the Foreign Office under Binyamin Netanyahu, Eitan Bentsur, heard of its contents from Beilin but it is unclear whether he did anything with it21. Ehud Barak did not accept its concept and also rejected a similar document, including a mechanism for solving the refugee problem, which Beilin presented to him on the eve of the Camp David Conference.

On September 16, 2000, less than a month after the conference finished, the agreement was published in the Israeli media. Barak was embarrassed when asked why he didn't use it at Camp David but the publication also embarrassed Abu Mazen, who was accused of giving up the Right of Return.

Camp David 2000 was the first organized discussion between the Israeli leadership and the PLO to deal with the refugee question and other subjects in the final settlement. It was also the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian Conference ever - with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak meeting Palestinian Authority Chairman, Yasser Arafat, and US President Bill Clinton mediating. Barak, who, according to both his sympathizers and his critics genuinely wanted an agreement, succeeded in persuading Clinton to support the initiative, in spite of Palestinian reservations.

The conference opened on July 11, 2000, but the longer it went on, the greater a sticking point the issue of Jerusalem became, despite Barak's readiness for far-reaching compromises. The two parties couldn't agree on 'the holy basin', and rule over the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif. Thus the conference ended without an agreement on July 25.

The Israeli representatives to the Working Committee on Refugees included veteran negotiator Alikim Rubinstein and former Likud minister, Dan Meridor, both known for their 'hawkish' views. The Palestinian delegates were all refugees or sons of refugees, among them Abu Mazen and Akram Haniyya, both known for their opposition to giving up the Right of Return27. The Israelis found that the Palestinians were not ready to discuss compensation mechanisms but demanded instead that Israel announce principled recognition of the Right of Return.

On July 16, the Israelis submitted a document, generous on the subject of compensation, but which did not recognize the Right of Return or accept Israeli responsibility for the refugee problem. The Palestinians angrily demanded compensation also for their past suffering and though Israel tried to find some verbal solution, there was no progress in the discussions. When Clinton returned from a trip to Japan and heard that the parties had discussed the Right of Return for ten straight days, he decided henceforth to concentrate on Jerusalem.

The Palestinian account of the conference attributes more importance to the Right of Return than to Jerusalem. At the opening of the conference, Arafat told Clinton that the Palestinians wanted the Right of Return29. In December 2001, a year and a half after Camp David, Arafat described the refugee problem as the main issue there30.
In the Israeli delegation, the 'hawks' opposed a suggestion, which enjoyed some support from Barak, to totally reject the Right of Return but also to look at the problem from a Palestinian point of view and to offer some moral compensation. Rubinstein saw this as damaging to Israeli beliefs.

The Camp David Conference failed because of the disagreement over dividing Jerusalem; but in practice Jerusalem was the subject where the parties made significant progress. They concentrated on Jerusalem in order to avoid the conclusion that they could not make progress on a solution to the refugee problem.


After the failure at Camp David, an additional conference took place between the two parties, without leaders or US mediators, at Taba in January 2001. It seems that a sub-committee headed by Yossi Beilin from Israel and Nabil Sha'ath for the Palestinians, crystallized an agreement on the refugee question. According to various reports, the parties at Taba reached a formulation which permitted the Palestinians not to give up the principle of Right of Return along with an agreement that in practice the solution will be the settlement of the refugees in places other than Israel. However the overall failure of the Taba Conference did not allow this agreement to be put to the test.
The common denominator in all the Conferences from Lausanne to Taba was that the refugee problem was the main obstacle to reaching an agreement. At Lausanne, the Knesset discussion opposed returning refugees while by the time Camp David came, the Knesset was discussing a law to ensure the denial of the Right of Return'.


(English titles of Hebrew works)

Eban, Abba. 1978. Chapters in a Life Time. Tel-Aviv. Sifriat Ma'ariv
Beilin, Yossi. 1997. Touching Peace. Tel Aviv: Miskal-Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books
________ 2001. Manual for a Wounded Dove. Tel-Aviv: Miskal-Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books
Ben-Ami, Shlomo. 1998. A Place for All. Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House
Bentsur, Eytan. 1997. The Road to Peace Crosses Madrid. Tel-Aviv: Miskal-Yediot Aharanot Books and Chemed Books
Dayan, Moshe. 1981. Shall the Sword Devour Forever? (Breakthrough, a Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations). Edanim Publishers and Yediot Aharonot Edition
Weizman, Ezer. 1982. The Battle for Peace. Jerusalem. Edanim Publishers and Yediot Aharonot Edition
Savir, Uri. 1997. The Process. Tel-Aviv. Miskal-Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books
Rubinstein, Elyakim. 1992. Paths of Peace. Ministry of Defense Pub.
Sher, Gilad. 2001. Just Beyond Reach-the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999-2001. Tel-Aviv: Miskal-Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books
Yaari, E. Haber, E. Schiff, Z. 1980. The Year of the Dove. Tel-Aviv: Zmora, Bitan Modan Publishers
Hirschfield, Yair P. 2000. Oslo: A Formula for Peace, from Negotiations to Implementation. Yitzhak Rabin Center: Am Oved Publishers
Herman, Tamar. Twite, Robin. 1991. The Arab-Israel Peace Negotiations: Politics and Concepts. University of Tel-Aviv: Papirus Publishers
Zeitune, Shaul. 2000. Deterrence and Peace. Tel-Aviv: Tsirkover Publications
Netanyahu, Benjamin. 1995. A Place Among the Nations. Yediot Aharonot
Fried, Shelly. October 1998. Precious Land - Israel's Policy on Compensation for Abandoned Palestinian Property, 1947-1951: From the UN Partition Resolution to the Paris Conference. Thesis submitted for the M.A. Degree in History at Tel-Aviv University
Shaham, David. 1998. Israel - 50 Years. Am Oved Pub.
Caplan, Neil. 1993. The Lausanne Conference 1949, a Case Study in Middle East Peacemaking. The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel-Aviv University
Morris, Benny. 1987. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949. Cambridge University Press

The full names of quoted works are found in the bibliography. Only the name of the author appears in the references.

1 Benny Morris
2 Shelly Fried: 12-36
3 Shelly Fried: 37-53: Shaul Zeitune's (96) research also noted that at Lausanne the Arab states demanded 'to place the refugee problem as the first point in the discussions at the Conference, while Israel was interested in leaving it to the end'. See Caplan for a more comprehensive research on Lausanne
4 Shelly Fried: 62-96
5 Sadat was to define Geneva as a televison war. Weizman: 322
6 Eban, Abba. Vol 2:532-546
7 Bentsur, Eytan: 206-7, Hirschfield, Yaer: 28-36, Rubenstein: 28-3, Shoham, David: 355-6
8 Eytan Haber etc: 182-201: Yair Hirschfeld: 36-43: Rubinstein: 28. Weizman defined Carter as one who aspired to 'a political solution for the Palestinians': 335-338
9 Haber etc: 310-316, Weizman: 322-326, Moshe Dayan: 136-140, Rubinstein: 38-42
10 Dayan: 140-141, Haber etc: 315-321, Weizman: 326-329
11 Dayan: 145-147,152, Haber etc: 342-343, Weizman: 322, 329
12 Dayan: 152: Haber etc: .342-343, 346, 350: Weizman: 341-347: Rubinstein: 51, 62-64
13 As had been agreed by Begin and Carter. The idea was to leave the PLO outside, and with it the refugee problem (Beilin: 35-36).
14 For the speeches at Madrid, see Bentsur: 215-298
15 See Shlomo Ben-Ami who chaired the Israeli delegation in 1993,94.
16 Beilin, Touching Peace: 55-59, 69-70: Ben-Ami: 84-87: Bentsur: 139-179, 140-200: Hirschfeld: 53-73,78-83: Rubinstein: 159-160: Shaham:. 511-514
17 See also Ari Shavit's interviews with Yosi Beilin, in Ha'aretz magazine 7.3.97: 18, and 15.6.01: 20-26. Beilin, Touching Peace: 161-164. Hirshfels Oslo: 119-145, and Uri Savir's book.
18 Beilin, Touching Peace: 163-219 and Manual: 137-139' Hirschfeld: 225-239'. For an ostensibly full text, see Akiba Eldar in Ha'aretz 21. 00: 43 and Beilin,Manual: 267-280
19 Even Beilin, in Manual: 267-280, quotes Newsweek
20 Beilin Touching Peace: 209-212
21 Beilin, Manual: 68
22 Beilin, Manual: 126-127
23 Beilin, Manual: 153-154
24 Beilin, Manual: 119-130. Abu Mazen: "We went to Camp David so that it won't be said the Palestinians refuse negotiations", Ha'aretz 9.8.01: B3: Robert Malley 'The myths of Camp David' Ha'aretz, 10.7.01: B1' Robert Malley and Hussein Agha 'How Barak caused the Camp David talks to fail', Yediot Aharonot 20.7.01: 14-15, 25.
25 Ben-Ami's interview with Ari Shavit, Ha'aretz magazine 14.9.01: 20-32: and Uzi Benziman "TheDiary of Dan Meridor' in Ha'aretz 28.9.01: 4B) and see note 2
26 Beilin, Manual: 119-139: Sherr:153-235: Akiva Eldar, 'As if it were the Right of Return', Ha'aretz 25.1.01: B3: Akiva Eldar 'Seeds of Repentance' Ha'aretz 8.3.0: B3: Akiva Eldar, 'Why did Camp David fail, the official Palestinian version', Ha'aretz 4.7.01: B3: Ben-Ami and Abu Ala 'We were never so close to an agreement' Ha'aretz 28.1.01: A1, A10: Uzi Benzamin, Arafat, Ha'aretz 21.12.01: B3 and others.
27 Sherr: 161, 166, 213-215, Beilin defines the Conference as a dovish axis of Ben-Ami and Lifshitz-Shahak against hawkish Meridor and Rubinstein (Beilin, Manual: 130)
28 Beilin, Manual: 131-144, Sher: 213-217
29 Sherr: 161
30 Uzi Benzamin, Arafat, Ha'aretz, 21.12.01: B3. See also Tom Segev, Open visit to Arafat, Ha'aretz 21.5.02: B12
31 Sherr: 164-165
32 Sherr: 375, 383-384.
33 See Beilin, Manual: 11-15, 198-215: Akiba Eldar, The Right of Return as it were, Ha'aretz 25.1.01: B3: Uzi Binzamin, The formulations of Beilin, Ha'aretz 12.19.01: B7, Zeev Schiff, What was achieved at Taba on the refugee question, Ha'aretz, 12.9.01:B1. For a more questioning description of events, see Sherr: 396-413: David Metz, Failure has two fathers, Ha'aretz 8.2.02: B12: On the report of the European Union's emissary Migal Mortionus on the Taba talks, see Akiba Eldar, The Taba document, first exposure, Ha'aretz 14.2.92: B3 and also: A1 and A12
34 The Israeli government cannot sign an agreement to recognize the Right of Return, without a majority of 61 in the Knesset. (Knesset Records 17.5.2000).