Leaked documents reveal that Jordan had a serious disagreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) over the latter's approach to negotiating with Israel over the rights of Palestinian refugees. Jordanian officials felt the PLO's approach could compromise Jordan's and the refugees' rights to seek full remedies under international law.
In early September 2008, the Jordanian government drafted a letter, to be sent to Israel, expressing objections to the potential solutions to the refugee issue that were being discussed between Israel and Palestinian negotiators.
Jordan was concerned that the "international mechanism" which Israel and the PLO had agreed on to act as the sole forum for handling refugee claims would prejudice Jordan's rights to pursue claims for the costs it says it has borne as a host country, and potentially damage the ability of Palestinian refugees living in Jordan to exercise their individual rights as refugees.
Under proposals whose major outlines were agreed between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, refugees' options would be limited to financial compensation, with the right of return for refugees to homes now in Israel limited to all but a symbolic handful of individuals.
Under proposals contained in a 2007 draft for a "Permanent Status Agreement" found among the Palestine Papers, the number of refugees allowed to return to homes now in Israel would be capped at 10,000 per year for ten years. Israel, according to Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in a confidential June 2009 briefing to his staff, has proposed accepting just one thousand refugees per year over ten years. Even if Israel were to allow 100,000, it would represent a fraction of Palestinian refugees and in an effect an annulment of the right of return.
The Jordanians also argued that the proposed "international mechanism" would violate the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. After setting out its misgivings the draft letter from the Jordanian foreign ministry to the Israeli government stated: "Jordan, therefore, reserves its rights under international law and the 1994 Treaty of Peace in relation to the refugee issue and would not acquiesce to any process or a resolution to which it is not party that would exclude or limit its legal standing and rights relating to the refugee issue, including state rights and individual rights."
PA: Jordan has "no legal standing"
A few days after the Jordanian draft was sent to the Palestinians, an assessment of the Jordanian position by the PLO's Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) stated, "the question of the Jordanian state’s legal capacity to endorse the claims of the Palestinian refugees who are Jordanian citizens is currently being analyzed by our external consultants."
A legal memo -- apparently containing the external analysis though not indicated who it was by -- strongly contested any Jordanian claim to represent even its own citizens who are Palestinian refugees. Citing a single obscure legal reference unrelated to refugee rights or international law on refugees, the memo makes the extraordinary claim that, "It is well settled that Jordan has no standing under international law to espouse claims on behalf of its nationals for loss, damage or injury that occurred before the acquisition by such individuals of Jordanian nationality."
Even more extraordinary, the NSU memo even disputes whether Jordan has the right to represent its own citizens in claims for damages against Israel which occurred while the claimants were already citizens of Jordan.
Another document found in The Palestine Papers archive is a copy of the Jordanian letter with text labeled "PLO comments" inserted between the lines.
This document states, "The PLO is internationally recognized as the representative of the Palestinian people, including refugees. Jordan’s argument that it has standing to bring claims on behalf of refugees cannot apply to Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan but who are not Jordanian nationals. In addition, under international law, it is highly questionable that Jordan would have standing to espouse claims on behalf of its citizens for loss, damage or injury that occurred before the acquisition by these individuals of Jordanian citizenship."
The document offers no references for these assertions. On 19-20 September 2008, Ziyad Clot, the legal advisor of the PLO met in Amman with Mahmoud Hmoud, the head of the Legal Department of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, to discuss the dispute. According to leaked minutes of the Amman meeting written by Clot, "Both advisors agreed that it is not in interest of the PLO or Jordan, nor that of the refugees.’ to challenge the other party’s alleged standing to represent refugees."
Clot also asserts that he presented the PLO's ideas for the "International Mechanism" to the Jordanian side, which responded that such a mechanism "could be appropriate" and that "the Jordanians would be ready to support the proposal, especially if the US agrees to it."
Nevertheless, the minutes also record that "The Jordanian side has not yet decided at this stage whether the letter should be transmitted to the Israelis." It is unclear whether Jordan ever placed its objections on the reocord by sending the letter to Israel.
The 2008 dispute recalls earlier episodes of mistrust between Jordan and the PLO during the peace process. Jordanian officials were angered when news broke in 1993 of the Oslo accords, secretly negotiated between Israel and the PLO. Jordanian offials felt that the talks, carried out behind their backs, undermined the peace talks then going on in Washington in which Jordan was a participant, and that a separate deal between Israel and the PLO could come at the detriment of Jordanian interests.
For Palestinian refugees, the concern must be that the PLO appears to be vigorously defending its right to solely decide on the refugee issue with Israel, while at the same time appearing willing to make substantial compromises on the rights of refugees, including effectively giving up the right of return for all but a tiny, symbolic number of Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to the newly-released book The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict. He is a co-founder of the widely read online publication The Electronic Intifada, an award-winning online publication about Palestine and the Palestine conflict. He has written hundreds of articles on the question of Palestine for publications all over the world, including Al Jazeera.