The status of the Palestinians as long-term refugees - with some refugee families now in their third or fourth generation - is without doubt one of the factors that makes the right of return such a contentious issue. The Volksdeutsch of Eastern Europe, who have been allowed to build new lives in Germany, have no pressing need to return to their countries of origin, and therefore have far less desire to do so. The Jews who became refugees from Arab countries after the creation of Israel have been absorbed in a similar manner; I'm not aware of any studies of their attitudes toward their homelands, but I suspect that very few would return if given the choice.
In contrast, many of the Palestinian refugees see return as their only way out of statelessness. It is no accident that only 5 percent of Palestinians living in Jordan - who are full citizens of a mostly-Palestinian country - expressed the desire to return to Israel as compared to 23 percent of those living in Lebanon. And even in Jordan, the condition of the Palestinian refugees is not truly comparable to that of the Germans, because refugee camps still exist. Unlike the Volksdeutsch, they have not been completely absorbed and have not entirely left their refugee status behind.
The Palestinians' status is anomalous in the history of refugee problems. Most long-term refugee problems are resolved through resettlement rather than repatriation - refugees either return to their homeland within a few years or never return at all. The Volksdeutsch, the postwar Jewish refugee problem and the 1947 exchange of populations between India and Pakistan all ended this way. Eventually, long-term refugees stop being refugees and become citizens of their host countries.
I might add that the reason that the Palestinian situation is anamolous is solely because of the lack of open societies in the surrounding Arab states. A large influx of Palestinians permitted to settle and assimilate would have threatened the grasp on power of the various regional dictators - and the denial of the refugees the right to settle was tacitly approved by the post-WWII colonial powers (Britain and the US), because after all the regional dictatorships were set up by them in the first place.
Ultimately the Palestinian refugee problem has its roots firmly planted in post-WWII colonialism and modulated by Cold War realpolitik. Only in the Middle East did both of these vast forces intersect.
Jonathan suggests that the fact that refugees want to be assimilated does not threaten the peace process:
Does this mean that Dr. Shikaki's poll results are wrong, and that Israel would experience a similar influx of Palestinian refugees if it conceded a right of return? I don't believe so. ... Palestinians returning to Israel would become residents of what most, in all likelihood, view as someone else's country. In addition, while there is only one Rwanda, a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians will result in the Mandate of Palestine being divided into two independent states. Given the choice, most Palestinians - as reflected in the Shikaki poll - will return and rebuild the part of the Mandate that they rule rather than the part the Israelis do. The experience of the Tutsi refugees is more likely to be repeated through a mass repatriation of Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza, not to Israel.
An interview that Dr. Shikaki gave to National Public Radio shortly after the poll results were released lends further weight to this conclusion. During that interview, he stated that if Israeli citizenship were required as a condition of return, only 1 percent rather than 10 percent of refugees would exercise that option. In other words, 99 percent of Palestinian refugees were unwilling to become citizens of a country they perceived as belonging to someone else. This suggests that, even if Israel conceded an unlimited right of return, fewer than 40,000 refugees would come - a number even less than the 150,000 to 250,000 that I discussed during my initial analysis of the poll. It is likely, moreover, that most of these would be older people with family ties in Israel who would be at very low risk of committing terrorist activity, although it would still be wise for Israel to require all applicants for return to undergo a security check.
Jonathan has been successfully eroding my idealism (but not my pragmatism!) about the binational state solution - and clearly the comparison he draws with Rwanda (read his entire post for the details) seems to suggest that a single state would indeed pose problems that are circumvented with the two-state approach. However, I still believe that the scenario outlined above woudl still work under a binational state framework, because the binational idea has never been about a single unified federal entity whose provinces exist as administrative regions only.
The true binational state solution is based on the federalist model - in fact, I should stop calling it a binational state, and refer to it henceforth as a binational union. The "states" in such a construct are as sovereign as the states in the American Union (sadly less so under Republican rule nowadays). This distinction is completely and totally ignored in most critiques of the binational union idea, such as this Uri Averny piece (courtesy Jonathan) which bases much of its analysis on the utterly false assumption that a binational union would somehow undermine the idea of the Jewishness of the Jewish homeland. Averny is tilting at the non-federal windmill.
In fact Jonathan has suggested to me that I should support the two-state solution as a necessary step towards the binational ideal. It's quite an alluring idea, but I think that it's ultimately unworkable. The basic point of the binational union is to tie the destinies of the two people of Palestine-Israel together in a positive way, to replace the negative death-grip. To suggest that these two peoples, whose blood has mingled on the holiest soil, can somehow erect a wall and go their separate ways is to deny the "facts on the ground" - both the literal ones and the metaphorical ones.