Courtesy Reuters

The Arab Refugees: A Changing Problem

The Arab refugee problem is no longer the principal obstacle to peace between Israel and the Arab states. This was indicated in the recent United Nations Palestine debate. Concern of most Arab speakers about the refugees was secondary to their fear of the Zionist enclave in the Arab "heartland."

Nevertheless, the United States and the United Nations continue to regard the refugee problem as the key to peace in the 15-year-old conflict. The appointment of Joseph Johnson, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as Special Representative of the U.N. Conciliation Commission for Palestine to devise ways of giving the refugees a "free choice" about their future homes, was based on the premise that the refugee problem is central in the Palestine conflict. After several rounds of parleys with both Israelis and Arabs, Dr. Johnson put forward a series of still unpublished proposals which neither side has accepted. These envisage a scheme in which the refugees would be given an opportunity to make known whether they desire to settle in Israel, in the Arab host countries or elsewhere. The process by which they would indicate their preferences would be administered by the United Nations. Israel would not be committed to accept all those desiring to return, but it would be expected to accept a limited number who could be absorbed without jeopardizing its economic or military security. Dr. Johnson's plan is based on the belief that, although few refugees would want to live in the Jewish state, the opportunity to do so would give them a certain psychological satisfaction. With such a "free choice" they would, it was hoped, subsequently abandon their resistance to rehabilitation in permanent homes and jobs outside of Palestine.

This view of the refugee problem depends on assumptions which no longer seem relevant. Since 1948 the conditions in the Middle East have altered considerably. Why has policy of the United Nations and the United States lagged behind the changing realities?

The most obvious reason is the

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