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European Council on Foreign Relations





Do prospects for a solution to the refugee issue strain or sustain a two-state solution?

While not usually at the heart of the public conversation the refugee issue strains the prospects for a two-state solution, in particular due to the sensitivity of the issue for Palestinian and Israeli public opinion.

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The refugee issue is among the most sensitive of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). Current conditions of refugees in the three major host countries (Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) show moderately poor socio-economic indicators and levels of education and healthcare, with differences in social indicators between refugees and host countries pointing to widespread discrimination. The civil war in Syria has made things worse in the country, where living standards for refugees were actually higher than in Jordan and Lebanon. Palestinian refugee communities in these countries live in conditions that are currently, and will be for the foreseeable future, both grim and unpredictable.

Opinion polls conducted among Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) highlight the importance of the refugee issue, which nonetheless appeared as subordinate to their desire for Israel to return to the 1967 borders, for an end to the occupation, and for the birth of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Forty-two percent of those polled in June 2013 noted these issues as priorities, while 34 percent stated that the most vital goal was the right of return for refugees “to their 1948 towns and villages”. A December 2013 poll found that almost all Palestinians think that at least an acknowledgment in principle of the right of return is needed in order to make a peace deal “tolerable”, while a majority is ready to compromise on the implementation of the right of return. Palestinian leaders from both major parties have often placed less emphasis on the refugee issue, which has been the subject of Hamas-Fatah disagreements in the past.

Opinion polls among Israelis show that, in the context of the broadly-established parameters for a two-state outcome, the refugee issue is one that the Jewish Israeli public is least supportive of: only 15.3 percent support a limited return for Palestinian refugees and only 23.9 percent agree that Israel should accept partial historical responsibility for the suffering of Palestinian refugees. Interestingly, the two segments of the Israeli population that are most supportive of these positions are individuals under 34 years of age and the ultra-orthodox community. In 2013, Israeli leaders drew rigid red lines on the refugee issue, which was listed together with Jerusalem among the topics on which no concession could be made. Leaders considered to belong to the more pragmatic wing of the current cabinet such as Yesh Atid chair and Finance Minister Yair Lapid also shared this position. In his 6 October speech at Bar Ilan University, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Palestinians must drop their requests on the right of return if peace is to be achieved. According to a December 2013 poll, 55 percent of Israelis (and 63 percent of Jewish citizens) agree with him.

Funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is keeping pace with demographic growth but it is still insufficient to meet demands; forecasts for its 2013 budget show a deficit of $70.5 million. This implies that UNRWA’s financial situation is unsustainable, which significantly compromises its capacity to carry out its mandate to improve refugees’ standards of living.