Interview with Yossi Beilin

Akiva Eldar: What was achieved in Taba? What was the significance of the Taba agreement concerning the refugees?
Yossi Beilin: At Camp David there were no real negotiations on the subject. The Israeli view was that Israel was not responsible for the problem, doesn't have to pay for it and the number of refugees who will be admitted will be some hundreds every year and that's it. The feeling of the Palestinians was that Israel was not ready to even address the problem. We spoke about it seriously in Taba for the first time and dealt with three major issues.
The first one was the narrative. The wisdom of Taba was that we could refer to the two narratives in the evolving Palestinian refugee problem, without accepting either of them. The mere fact that we could refer to them and respect both narratives was enough to satisfy both sides that their story is not being ignored. The second issue was numbers, which, importantly, we negotiated for the first time. From an Israeli point of view, once you speak about numbers, as long as they are not huge, there is no Right of Return but an Israeli decision to accept a certain number of refugees. Not that we solved the problem but I think we got close to a solution which could be satisfactory to both sides. We were speaking about a fifteen year solution in which, in the first three years, 25,000 refugees would be permitted to enter Israel.

This was your suggestion?
That was my suggestion; the idea of 15 years was accepted, the numbers were not. But I think that our speaking about these dimensions was very important because in a way it noted the maximum number while being open ended. It meant that the maximum would be the multiplication of this number by five, but if the experience of the absorption of these refugees is negative, then there is no Israeli commitment to continue this. So that could have solved the problem for both sides and I think had we continued the negotiations in Taba, that could eventually have been the solution. I can't be sure about this because we did not agree on it.
Then there was a third part which referred to the institutions, to the International Fund and personal compensation. On all these things both parties were quite well prepared, much more than in Camp David, and we could talk about the structures and ways to assess the sum of money which will be needed to compensate the Palestinians. The agreement was then that all these components will include the five Clinton solutions namely:
1. Absorption of the Palestinians in the Palestinian State
2. Absorption of the Palestinians in the swapped territories
3. An agreed upon number in Israel itself
4. Rehabilitation where they live, and
5. Absorption in third party countries.
All these solutions, with compensation and reparations, would be the fulfillment of 194. This means 194 was not just a basis upon which the solution will be established, but that the solution we suggested is already the implementation of 194 and from then on there would be no more claims.

Did you have anything to hold on to from Camp David or did you start from scratch?
No, there was nothing in Camp David that we could use. Camp David was actually an exchange of ideas and speeches, which represented, the general view of both sides and history as it was seen by both sides. I think that the main reason for the collapse of Camp David was the Jerusalem issue, not the Right of Return. If you read the books of those that participated you see that.

But Minister Dan Meridor says the refugee issue was discussed and he was a member of the refugee team.
I believe that the Palestinians actually hoisted the flag of the refugees when they saw that it was difficult for them to achieve what they wanted as regards Jerusalem. Maybe raising the whole issue of the right of return at that time was a big mistake on the Palestinian side, because it made people like Dan Meridor refuse any serious debate about it. But if you ask me if there will be no solution without the Right of Return, I think that is totally wrong.

There is an argument that Nabil Sha'ath and the other Palestinian negotiators didn't have a full mandate from Arafat. Do you believe that had you and Nabil Sha'ath reached an agreement in Taba, Arafat would have signed it?
You can say that for both sides. When two negotiators sit together behind closed doors and suggest ideas they are not always consulting with their superiors. In many cases they say OK, this is my idea but I am not sure whether it will be accepted and I have to consult. The 15 year idea was not one that was suggested by Barak or in consultation with him. He could have said that he didn't accept it, and the same goes for Arafat. To say that only Arafat wouldn't have accepted it is distorted and I think, though I can't prove it, that a solution agreed upon by the parties in Taba would have been accepted on both sides.

Barak said on many occasions that Taba was an exercise to show you and Yossi Sarid "the real face of Arafat".
Barak's real aim was to prove that he was not wrong. Had it been possible for him to show the people a draft agreement which would not include the Right of Return but would include the biggest Jewish Jerusalem ever, he would have grabbed it. Now what happened later is a different question. Barak was trying to justify his mistakes at the time.
It could have been a golden way not only to have peace but also to win the election.

You keep trying to reach some extra agreements with Nabil Sha'ath, to develop the agreement where you left off. Can you say you are in a different place today than you were two years ago.
We are working on solutions for the refugee question, for example, and we have made progress. We are now speaking about dilemmas which we did not even think about two years ago.

Such as?
We are looking at a way to assess the refugees' assets - the comparison between Jordan and between places in Israel itself, etc. We are deep into the details of a potential solution.

In the final analysis do you believe there is a possibility to close the gap between the Israeli anxiety about the Right of Return and the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize at least some if not full responsibility for what happened?
I think that we can close the file of the refugee problem and that we are very close to the solution. This will and should be a clear cut solution so that the refugees have a mannual which will tell him or her what the options are, and the Israelis will know exactly what price they are going to pay as regards the refugees and their return, with no question marks about the future.

Do you believe that the Palestinians will ultimately sign an agreement that doesn't mention 'Right of Return'?
Any solution between us and the Palestinians will mention the Right of Return. The only question is the context. This will clarify that there will be no right of return to Israel. This is the most important thing for Israelis and they cannot accept any solution which does not include this.

Even if we sign an agreement, Palestinians from the quota of 20,000 could say; "I have some properties, I have real estate in Israel and I can go to the international court and demand restitution."
Restitution he will not get, compensation he will.

So you are sure you can find a formula that will not give an opportunity to Israelis who are looking for holes to find one?
The Israelis who are looking for holes will always find them.
As soon as there is an understanding, and it would appear we are working towards the agreed implementation of UN General Assembly resolution 194, then we are no longer in the realm of automatic rights, such as the Right of Return. Rights are an absolute, not something to be agreed or negotiated or made to be a win-win. We are not in the arena of 'rights' but of practical, mutually acceptable arrangements.
What is important is that the text of any agreement will leave no room for interpretation, that it cannot be read to mean, or claimed to in any way provide for, the Right of Return to Israel. No such right can be construed as existing by virtue of the agreement - in this respect clarity rather than creative ambiguity is of the essence.

Did you agree on a formula that will put a definite end to all claims in regard to the refugees?
The end of all claims related to the refugee file is very important, and it is another issue on which we have made much progress. We sign an agreement with the PLO, acting on behalf of the Palestinian people, including the refugees, in which we reach a set of arrangements to close the refugee file in all its aspects, from permanent places of residence, to assets, property, financial aspects, suffering - that's it, no more claims.
Neither side needs to actively deny elements that existed in their respective national discourses, not regarding the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount or the Land of Israel, nor the respective Palestinian narratives. Rather we need to reach clear, unambiguous, precise, detailed solutions on all the issues, which are agreed and not open to multiple interpretations or dispute, and shall offer both peoples a better future. This applies to the end of occupation, withdrawal from settlements, and Jerusalem. This is true also of the refugee file.
Israel's interest, and I would say it is a Palestinian interest too, is that within a short period of time after an agreement, there are no Palestinian refugees and no camps. That all former refugees have Palestinian or some other citizenship, the camps and UNRWA have been dismantled or integrated to new redevelopment and rehabilitation schemes - these centers of suffering, frustration and despair, and a recruitment ground for hatred - are a thing of the past. Once compensation has been paid, all claims are settled, no-one will have recourse to make any demands of Israel. Words are important, but a new reality on the ground, say within five years of the agreement, especially for what would be 'former refugees', this is much more important.

Interview with Nabil Sha'ath

Akiva Eldar: Would you accept the principle that the Israelis give up their Right of Return to Hebron and the Palestinians reciprocate by giving up their right to return to Jaffa?
Nabil Sha'ath: These are two different things. Those who want to return to live in Hebron, under Palestinian sovereignty, are most welcome. We have no problem with that. The problem is that over 60 percent of the Palestinian people are refugees. Their Right of Return, or the right to choose return, has to be resolved in a different manner than that of those few Israelis who lived in Hebron. We are talking about much larger numbers, which is why this has to be resolved by negotiations.

I am sure you are aware of the fact that Palestinian insistence at Camp David 2000 that the peace agreement include the phrase "Right of Return" has been interpreted by many Israelis as ultimate proof that we are not looking at a two state solution.

I'm aware of what has been said, starting from Camp David. Many people blame its failure on the refugee issue which I think is totally erroneous. Camp David barely touched on it, the problem there had to do with territory, in particular Jerusalem and the Holy places. The refugee issue was discussed seriously for the first time in Taba. Anybody who looks at what happened then will see real goodwill on both sides and, I think, a perceptual provision of a framework for a solution to the problem.

Do you think you can bridge your need to get recognition for the Right to Return, and Israel's anxiety over upsetting its demographic balance.
The question of demographic balance is a difficult issue to deal with, because you already have about a million and a quarter Palestinians in Israel Muslims and Christians who do not want to be treated as if they are just a demographic aberration. They are citizens of Israel, so talking about the refugee issue from the point of view of demographics makes the problem more difficult. I'd rather think of it as a problem of a major influx of population, which, if it happens in an uncontrolled way, would confront any state with political, social and economic problems. Israel is already confronting that problem because of the right of return for Jews, or people whose grandparents were Jews, from all around the world. You have been able to absorb all of these people into the state of Israel.
A Palestinian who was not allowed to return to his home after 1948 cannot possibly have fewer rights than a Russian Jew who uses a biblical promise for a return after 3,000 years. You cannot deprive the Palestinians of a right to return. We have to center on the issue of the implementation of that right as an agreed solution to end the conflict between us. There has to be a win-win situation.

You are talking in terms of realpolitik and at the same time in terms of doing justice to the refugees, but let us assume you agree a certain quota of people be allowed back. 20 years later the grandchildren of those not in this quota will say; "Israel has recognized our right of return and now we want to exercise it".
I think any agreement for mass return should have a reasonable time limit, as in all similar cases, although family reunions should be open ended. During this time limit everybody will be allowed to make their choice. Otherwise it would be like applying to enter any other country in the world, not entering under the auspices of a negotiated agreement.

As a matter of principle, why should Palestinian refugees be treated differently from refugees in Europe or any other place?
The difference here is the existence of the Law of Return in Israel. Had Israel been a normal country allowing people in only on a strict non-preferential, unbiased basis, the Palestinians might have accepted the comparison with other refugees. But in fact, they are going to be replaced by people who have a right of return after 3,000 years, when their own right of return is challenged after less than 50.

Do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
We recognize Israel as a state. The question of Jewish state has to do with your own declaration of independence which gave all non-Jews the same rights. If being a Jewish state means Judaism is the religion of the majority of the population, then we have absolutely no problem. If Israel being a Jewish state means that the non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel are not equal citizens, that is of course something we cannot accept, under your own declaration of independence.

Is it possible to draft an agreement that will guarantee that the right return of the refugees will not jeopardize the Jewish identity of Israel?
You have a right to defend your cause the way you want to. We don't have to accept your reasons. You need an agreement in which from your point of view a finite number of Palestinians are allowed to return to their homes with other acceptable and attractive options offered to the Palestinians. There will arise an independent Palestinian state with a Palestinian flag, to which a Palestinian returns as a citizen and has equal rights whether he is inside that state, or outside it with a Palestinian passport. If that state is allowed real independence, sovereignty, inviolability and a chance for prosperity, many Palestinians will choose to go there, not to their homes of 1948 which are now part of the Israeli state.
It is a question of choice and that was the basis of our discussions in Taba. Whatever reasons you have for not welcoming four million refugees, and whatever reasons we have for allowing Palestinians a reasonable choice including the choice of the state of Palestine, all this finally has to end up in a negotiated settlement.

In the paper you presented to the Americans you added and underlined the word "agreed" to the phrase "just solution". How significant is that?
It means that we are not talking about enforcing anything on any party, but about an agreed solution, based on the principles in resolution 194 which the Israelis accepted at Camp David and in Taba, negotiated and achieved within a total peace process. A negotiated solution is different from an imposed solution. In a negotiated solution both parties agree on acceptable trade offs.

Why didn't the Palestinians and the Arabs try to help the refugees? In the camps in Lebanon, people deprived of basic human and civil rights could have been helped to start a new life elsewhere. It seems they have been held hostage to the political solution.
Lebanon is the only exception. Palestinians in Jordan are treated like equal citizens. Those in the Gulf are treated like any other Arab who doesn't have nationality in Kuwait or other places, but who has the right to work and live there. But that does not resolve the issue of choice. French Jews, not Israelis living in France, are French citizens who are being allowed to come to Palestine and Israel as settlers, whereas Palestinians are not allowed that choice.
The issue of settlements and driving the Palestinians out of their homes is as old as 1948 , and yet it is being continued today in the West Bank and Gaza under the guise of the settlement policy. This is part of the reason that we've lost confidence in every Israeli leadership including that of Barak.

Why not offer the options suggested at Taba to people now? Let them go to Canada or wherever, rather than wait until we find a solution for Haram Al-Sharif. Why use them as a bargaining chip?
Nobody is interfering with the right of a Palestinian to go to Canada, Australia or wherever. In fact, of the 450,000 Palestinians who used to be in Lebanon, only around 172,000 are still there, so nobody is telling the Palestinians not to leave. How do you think 400,000 Palestinians ended up in Chile? The only country in the world barring entry to the Palestinians is Israel.

Have you and Yossi Beilin made any more progress since Taba?
I think we have made a contribution for anybody who wants to continue, whether it be us or somebody else. I think we reached a conceptual understanding about Israel's responsibility for the suffering and problems of the Palestinian refugees. We agreed on the principles embodied in resolution 194 and that the solution to the problem, in all its aspects, resides in the full implementation of resolution 194 through a series of free choices, and some restricted ones.
The option to return to the Palestinian state has no limitation. The option to return to areas annexed from Israel to the Palestinian state through swap processes are unlimited. The refugees right to return to homes and villages in Israel has to be negotiated and the numbers, timeframe and modalities have to be agreed. The right to family reunion has to be unlimited, except by a country's sovereign decision. Rights to reside in countries that accept the refugees, or to go to another country, are unlimited, except by that country's sovereign decision. We agreed that the right to compensation for land, buildings and assets expropriated must be an Israeli responsibility, while any financing for refugees' settlement in the Palestinian state or return to Israel or settlement in other countries has to be financed by international donors. We did not agree on the numbers or timeframes.
Part of the job Yossi Beilin and I are doing is to try to keep alive the belief that a solution to the refugee problem is possible. We are also trying to eradicate the myth that it will be a stumbling block preventing us from reaching any agreement.

This agreement will put an end to future claims and would be considered full implementation of 194.
Correct. Once we agree on all of these elements, and people have the chance to implement what we agreed within a certain time limit, that should end all claims whether for refugees or other damages.

Do you have the full blessing of Chairman Arafat for that?

I assume you have heard Mr Barak's argument that Taba was just an exercise. It has also been said that you were not mandated to sign even a non-paper, that Taba was only meant to get as much as possible from Israel.
This is absolutely untrue. We both rewrote our non-papers three or four times, trying to narrow the gaps to reach an agreement. We met later on with Yossi Beilin in Holland and other places, and tried to agree on a line that both of us could present. We both started to talk about this in our own communities and in my last two trips in Lebanon, I addressed thousands of refugees in the camps with this approach and I found full approval.

Polls show that if you ask the refugees what is their preferable solution, most of them insist on going back to Haifa or Jaffa.
This is their right. But when we come to a negotiated settlement and they have to make a choice, it's a different matter. Nobody is willing now to renounce his right. In an opinion poll everybody would believe it is their duty to say; "No, I want my right to go back to my own house". We have tried to deal with this issue by saying it's a right and not an obligation. I addressed this in Rashidiyya Camp in Lebanon. I said anybody who tells you "return is an obligation", not a right, slap him in the face. We do not want to drive people to become Israeli citizens in the villages they lived in before. I have also addressed the issue of returning to their homes I said in Ramat Aviv, which used to be Sheikh Muwannis, you won't find your home.
You have to think about return in a much broader context because it is return within a peace process. That is why you have to reject two notions: that the Palestinians should get some subsidy from the World Bank and shut up about their rights, or that it is the obligation of every Palestinian to go back to the village they came from. The Right of Return is something that any Israeli who wants to resolve the problem must accept. If we continue to negotiate that issue about whether the Palestinians have a right or not we will never reach a solution.

What is left to be worked out between you and Beilin?
We are now much closer to a real solution. We are both I from a Palestinian point of view and he from a patriotic Israeli point of view, but also from a requirement for peace point of view trying to come to an agreement that does not affect our principles, beliefs, rights, etc and that concentrates on a workable solution, acceptable to both peoples.

Many Israelis would disagree with your definition of Beilin as an Israeli patriot.
That is unfortunate. When we deal with each other in the peace process, respect has to be a given. If he thinks of me as an Israeli agent or I consider him a Palestinian agent then we hurt both the peace process and our own credibilty. We are both independent, each a patriot of his own country, with a strong desire to reach a settlement so we can sit together and talk about practical solutions to intractable problems.