This article analyses the negotiation strategy of the Palestine Liberation Organization regarding the refugee issue in the failed Israeli–Palestinian peace process from 1993 to 2001. It is argued that the PLO was on the brink of conceding the ‘right of return’ for the sake of territorial concessions from Israel. The author discusses the implications of this strategy for the domestic legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership, as giving up the right of return would violate a core tenet in Palestinian national mythology. The PLO negotiators tried to solve that dilemma by, first, separating the principle of return from its implementation—making it possible for the PLO to remain committed to the principle, while offering compromises on physical return—and, second, by demanding symbolic gestures from Israel, including acknowledgment of Israel’s historic responsibility for the refugee problem. It is argued that Israel’s refusal to offer a minimum of face-saving gestures prevented the PLO from formalizing its compromise proposal.
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