The Oslo Agreement from 1993 required solving the refugee problem, alongside other major issues, before reaching the permanent agreement, which was due to have been signed by May 1999. It was obvious that if we did not find a solution for this painful problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would remain unresolved, even if a Palestinian state were set up according to agreed borders. The refugee problem comprises various components: the story of its creation; the questions “who created it?” and “why hasn’t it been solved until now?”; and the organizational and financial solution.
The Palestinians prefer to start their version of the chain of events with the Israeli War of Independence of 1948, claiming that the refugees were expelled by Israel during this war, and that it is their right, according to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, to choose between return and compensation. The Israelis, however, describe it differently. According to the Israeli point of view, the Palestinians made a huge mistake when they rejected the UN’s Partition Resolution of 1947, according to which two nations would have been located in Palestine. Since the Arabs did not find this satisfactory, preferring to fight with Israel, the situation arose whereby, during the war, some 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes. About half of these Palestinians lost their homes because they fled, and about half because they were expelled. UN Resolution 194 was rejected by the Palestinians and by the Arab countries, as was Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s willingness, proposed in Lausanne, to absorb 100,000 refugees.
For many years, the Palestinians demanded to set up a secular- democratic country instead of Israel, and to absorb in this country any refugee who wished to come. They took the “Wish to Return” as mentioned in UN Resolution 194, and turned it into the “Right of Return.” The year 1974 saw the beginning of the process of separation from the idea of a secular-democratic country, and since 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has accepted the idea of two states–the State of Israel and the State of Palestine- -coexisting alongside one another. It was clear to many Palestinians and to the Israelis that even if the Palestinians insisted upon the principle of the “Right of Return,” this right would be applicable to those who would return to the Palestinian state, rather than to any person wishing to live in Israel, and that if a “Right of Return to Israel” was granted to the refugees, it would be tantamount to abolishing the Jewish majority in Israel, practically overnight.
Until the commencement of the talks with the Palestinian leadership concerning the permanent agreement, there was an understanding that the solution of the refugee problem would be found by rehabilitating them in their current place of residence, relocating them in the Palestinian State, relocating them in countries which would agree to absorb them, and paying them compensation. A small number of refugees would be permitted to enter Israel, under a family reunification plan and special humanitarian cases. This was also the nature of the understandings reached between Abu Mazen and myself in 1995.
When the talks began with the Barak government concerning the permanent agreement, the Palestinians said that the principle of the “Right of Return” must be incorporated as part of the agreement, and that this principle would be realized in such a way so as not to endanger the demographic balance in Israel. Israel presented a contrary approach: it was willing to receive a limited number of refugees, but it absolutely rejected the principle, claiming that this would in all likelihood lead to the foundation of two Palestinian states–the new Palestinian state and the State of Israel, which in a very short time would become a state with a Palestinian majority.
The Clinton Plan, dated December 2000, made a determination in this matter and that was agreed upon, in principle, by the two parties. A solution to the refugee problem would be devised in which the Israelis would acknowledge the suffering of the refugees, but Israel would not assume the sole responsibility for their suffering. A committee would be set up headed by the United States to handle the problem from the economic aspects; it would be determined that Israel could not accept the Right of Return within the boundaries of the State of Israel, but that there would be a Right of Return to the Palestinian State and to areas which Israel would transfer to the Palestinian State under a land exchange agreement. It would be determined that the refugees could be accepted in third countries; that Israel would agree to receive a certain number of refugees in accordance with its sovereign decision; that priority would be given to solving the refugee problem in Lebanon; and that the agreement would be deemed to be the implementation of Resolution 194.
The Taba talks were based on the Clinton Plan, and indeed it was easy to reach various understandings at the Taba talks, based on this plan. At Taba, agreements were reached concerning the nature of personal compensation, compensation for assets, options of rehabilitation and absorption in third countries, and compensation for the host countries. Above all, we were very close to an agreement concerning the story of the creation of the refugee problem, which described the Israeli approach and the Palestinian approach to the issue, and their common denominator. Specific sums of money were not agreed on, nor was the actual number of refugees which would be permitted to come to Israel. However, the distance under dispute between the parties was narrowed substantially, and the Palestinian side agreed that the number of refugees must be such that it would not damage Israel’s character as a Jewish country.
Regrettably, the refugee issue has become “proof,” as it were, of the “fact” that it was impossible to reach an agreement between the Palestinians and Israel, even at a time when Israel was headed by a particularly moderate government. This claim, however, is quite simply untrue. The talks at Taba were the best ever held between the parties, and the closest ever to reaching an agreement. Were it not for the fact that the talks were held at such a late stage, on the eve of elections in Israel for a new prime minister, it would have been possible to complete the Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement at the Taba talks. If we return to the Clinton-Taba guidelines, we will be able to reach an agreement on all the open issues, including the refugee problem. And the quicker we return to these guidelines, the better it will be for all of us.
Yossi Beilin was Justice Minister in the government of Ehud Barak, 1999-2001, and an architect of the Oslo peace process.