Book Review | Palestinian Refugees After 1948 by Marte Heian-Engdal

The Palestinian refugee problem has attracted the attention of many scholars from a variety of disciplines. When a new book is written on the subject, one hopes something new is in the offing. However, although well written and comprehensive in approach and structure, there is little in Marte Heian-Engdal’s Palestinian Refugees After 1948 that is original and cannot be found in other diplomatic histories of the conflict. The author herself even concedes that, ‘much of the primary material used here is shared with other scholarly works that cover either the same period or, alternatively, a common topical interest’.

Heian-Engdal asserts that the originality of the book is its ‘unprecedented range in terms of time, its multiple levels of analysis and ultimately the guiding research questions’. Although the date range is not indicated in the volume’s title, it stops before the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War. Had the book covered the period after 1967, at least to the mid or late 1970s, one could make the argument that the volume would have been an original contribution to existing literature because it would have covered a period when the nature of diplomatic efforts to solve the refugee problem changed with ascendancy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the transition of the conflict from that of a refugee issue to a question of national liberation. Alas, it did not.

In looking at attempts between 1948 and 1967 to solve the Palestinian refugee problem, Heian-Engdal names four reasons why peacemakers were unable to find a solution. They are: bad timing; Israel’s so-called ‘tactical skill in the international game’; domestic political factors in successive US administrations; and Washington’s reluctance to exert pressure on Israel and the Arab states. In each of these factors Heian-Engdal stands on shaky ground.

The bad timing argument is a cop-out. Heian-Engdal is certainly not the only one to blame timing for failed peace efforts – others have done so for conflicts all over the globe. However, surely there is no such thing as good timing in conflict resolution, hence the need for diplomatic interventions in the first place. If ever the definitive guide to conflict resolution is written, rule number one should be there is no such thing as good or bad timing. If one were to wait for good timing, one might as well wait for Godot.

Heian-Engdal’s other assertion that Israel’s ‘tactical skill’ in international politics is a reason for the diplomatic impasse over the refugee issue is faulty. In her attempt to sustain this argument Heian-Engdal points to Jerusalem’s utilisation of close advisors to US presidents such as Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy in order to tone down US pressure on Israel. At other times she argues that Israel’s offers, such as the one made in 1949 when Israel indicated that it was willing to accept 100,000 Palestine refugees despite knowing that this number was too low for the Arab states, was an example of skilful Israeli diplomatic manipulation. However, although Heian-Engdal is correct that Jerusalem probably knew this gesture would be rejected by the Arab states, it was still an offer that reflected Israel’s red line. Meanwhile, as well as some instances of tactical success, Israel also made some serious errors during negotiations. In May 1949, for example, when Israeli representatives signed a map of the 1947 UN partition resolution during the Lausanne Conference, affirming that this map would be a basis for further negotiations (what became known as the Lausanne Protocol), Jerusalem soon considered this to be a mistake – it made it seem as if Israel was willing to relinquish some of the territory that it had captured during its war of independence. Another Israeli ‘own goal’ was the Gaza Plan, which was put forward a couple of months later. The plan proposed that in return for Israel gaining control over the Gaza Strip, Israel would absorb the area’s 230,000 refugees. Although the initial origin of this idea is still debatable, Jerusalem suggested the scenario in order to regain US goodwill after President Truman issued Jerusalem with an official rebuke for not showing enough flexibility during discussions. However, Jerusalem had undermined its own official position that it was economically and strategically unable to absorb a significant number of Palestinian refugees, and, as a result, faced continued pressure to modify its position. Such missteps highlight that Israel’s diplomats were learning the game of international relations haphazardly while on the job. The author would have known this had she consulted the memoirs of early Israeli diplomats such as Walter Eytan and Gideon Rafael. In short, sometimes Israel displayed tactical skill, but sometimes incompetence.

Meanwhile, in highlighting domestic politics in presidential positions on the Palestinian refugee question, Heian-Engdal, doesn’t add much to what has already been asserted by other academics. However, what she and others often overlook is that it was not only the Jewish vote at play. US public opinion at large, not to mention Congress, was and is sympathetic towards the Jewish state. Surely, it would be untoward if public opinion was ignored during presidential calculations pertaining to Middle East policy, including proposals concerning the future of the Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem or arms sales to the Jewish state? Still, it is worth remembering that US administrations during the period in question (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and to some extent Johnson), kept their distance from Israel so not to alienate Arab states, while also seeking to maintain the regional arms balance. The US embrace of Israel did not manifest itself until after the 1967 war.

Finally, Heian-Engdal’s claim that the US should have exerted more pressure on Israel and the Arab states is also flawed. It begs the question, what exactly could the US administration do in practical terms to make the sides more accommodating? The answer is not much. Even a superpower like the US would have been hard pressed to coerce a smaller power such as Israel to enact a policy considered detrimental to Jerusalem’s national security interests. For example, even if the Truman administration were to have stopped its support for Israel joining the UN in 1949 unless it accepted 200,000 Palestinian refugees (which would have been embarrassing seeing that the US cosponsored the resolution to admit Israel in the first place), it is unlikely that Israel would have complied. Similarly, it is doubtful that Israel would have shown any significant additional flexibility on the refugee question even if Kennedy were to have refused to guarantee loans to Israel or sell Hawk missiles to Jerusalem. Had the US pursued such aggressive measures, not only would it have provided little tangible results, but it would also have alienated Israel which was proving itself to be the most dynamic and militarily potent country in the region. Truman, Kennedy and Johnson should be applauded for seeing the big picture and resisting pressure from frustrated diplomatic representatives on the ground.

Marte Heian-Engdal’s book lacks originality and its insights are flawed. Yet it does pack a punch, uses archival resources and may well be of interest to specialists of the Palestinian refugee issue and the difficulties of international conflict resolution.