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What really happened at Taba


By Yossi Beilin

Tuesday, July 16, 2002 Av 7, 5762
Israel Time: 05:26 (GMT+3)

When the eclipse finally ends, when reason returns to our lives, and we stop beating each other up and making fools of ourselves in actions like closing Sari Nusseibeh's offices, we'll also go back to the negotiating table, bruised and hurting, nerves wracked and convinced that finally the other side understands how powerful we are.

Then, in the negotiations over the issue of the Palestinian refugees, the chairman of the Palestinian team will open the yellowing pages of Ha'aretz from July 11, 2002, and quote from Ari Shavit's article (Taba's principle of return). The article reports on a document I wrote and gave the Palestinian delegation at Taba, in which Israel apparently recognized the right of Palestinians to return to its territory. The Palestinian negotiator will say a precedent has been set and ask the Israeli team why Israel is retreating from such an important decision. For that reason, it would be worthwhile for the Israeli team to also have my words, so they aren't trapped.

Agreement to a right of return by Palestinians to Israel means an end to the Zionist vision, meaning the vision of a Jewish, democratic state. The main motive for me and those who share my views, is the need to guarantee a border for Israel before we find ourselves, heaven forbid, ruling over more Palestinians than Jews. I pray Shavit's article does not cause unnecessary damage to this cause, which I hope he shares. In the passion of debate, the other side should not be granted another instrument to strengthen a demand Israel cannot accept.

Since Shavit quotes from a document I wrote and that was never published, because it was an internal memo and part of an official negotiating process, I assume it would not have been too great a bother for him to ask me if the quote was accurate. I would have told him that the document he was given contained two distortions that greatly changed its meaning. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to present the original document, but the one Shavit published was different from the original.

As for the other aspects of the argument: Shavit regards the statement that the agreement would be recognized as implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, acceptance of the Palestinian demand for implementation of the right of return, and therefore a terrible precedent. First of all, UNGAR 194, promulgated in December 1948, refers to Palestinian refugees "wishing to return," and not to their right to do so. That is why the Palestinians and all the Arab states opposed it at the time. Ever since the 1980s, UN decisions have referred to the right of return, which the Palestinians obviously preferred. An agreement between the sides that the solution to the refugee problem is to be found in implementation of UNGAR 194 would, in effect, close the book on the refugee case - an obvious Israeli interest that also answers the Palestinian need to solve the refugee problem without the need to declare that their right of return has been recognized.

Secondly, if Shavit had read the Clinton Framework, which was accepted by the government of Israel on December 28, 2000, he would have discovered that in the section on the refugee problem its says, "The sides will agree that this is an implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194." The Clinton Framework was known as the basis for enabling the Taba talks and it served as the mandate for the Israeli delegation.

Shavit claims that an Israeli agreement to allow a limited number of refugees to return, as part of a solution to the problem, is the same as acceptance of the principle of return. Contrary to the Clinton Framework, he says, "The Taba document is a breathtaking gamble. It opens the gates of sovereign Israel to a real, uncontrollable process of return." But again, a reading of the Clinton Framework would have been useful. The Clinton Framework says, "Israel could indicate in the agreement that it intends to establish a policy so that some of the refugees would be absorbed into Israel consistent with Israel's sovereign decision."

I don't know if that is how the refugee problem will eventually be solved. It's possible other ideas will arise. But setting a specific number of thousands of refugees who would be allowed into Israel could be part of a way to finally close this open wound, and accepting a limited number of Palestinian refugees, agreed upon in negotiations, does not contradict Israel's rejection of the principle of the right of return. It's also worth remembering that within the context of an agreement, Israel would be freed of some 200,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem with full suffrage, so demographically, there is a clear advantage to Israel.

I am convinced it is possible to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement without granting the Palestinian refugees the right of return. We were very close to such a solution at Taba in January 2001, where it was proved that it is possible to reach a fair agreement without Israel agreeing to what it could never accept - unlimited entry for refugees to its borders. It's no accident that only after the Taba talks did leaders from the Palestinian Authority begin making clear that they would not press for implementation of the right of return.

The writer headed the Israeli negotiating team on the refugee issue at Taba.

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