Of all Israel’s “red-line” issues on which there can be no compromise in negotiations with the Palestinians, “the reddest line” is not Jerusalem, as commonly believed, but accepting Palestinian refugees, according to Yossi Beilin, Israel’s minister of justice.
Beilin, well known for his dovish views on and longstanding involvement in the peace process, is adamant in asserting that Israel cannot take in refugees claiming a right of return, and still maintain its Jewish character.
“For us, it’s a life-or-death issue,” he said during an interview this week with Jewish newspaper editors in New York. “It would mean the end of the Jewish state and the Zionist dream.”
During the failed Camp David summit, there were widespread reports that as part of an agreement, Israel was prepared to accept,over a period of several years, 100,000 Palestinians claiming the right to return to their homes abandoned before or during the 1948 war. But Beilin cautioned not to “speak about numbers,” since the concept of opening Israel’s gates to Arab refugees suggests the ultimate loss of a Jewish majority in Israel.
He said the issue, which he noted is of great importance to the Palestinians, can be dealt with through “words of compassion” or through some form of financial compensation, but not in taking people into the Jewish state.
Beilin said within Israel there is universal agreement on this by doves as well as hawks, and while there can be compromise of borders, sovereignty and even the status of Jerusalem, there is no room for concessions on this issue.
Other Mideast observers have viewed the matter quite differently, suggesting that the Palestinian refugee issue could be finessed by providing an international compensation fund, but that Jerusalem was the true sticking point, with little room for compromise.
As for the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Beilin said he is still optimistic, but time is running out. He sees the end of September as a realistic deadline.
“It will be very difficult to wait after then,” he noted, faulting Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for delaying the negotiations.
Arafat, who has traveled to more than a dozen countries in recent days seeking diplomatic support for a unilateral declaration of statehood, said this weekend that he was inclined to delay such a statement, originally set for Sept. 13, until mid-November. Beilin called Arafat’s whirlwind diplomacy “a waste of time,” and asserted the Palestinian leader would be more productive negotiating seriously with Israel rather than “playing the blame game” and seeking support from world leaders for a unilateral move that almost certainly would lead to escalated tension, if not violence, in the region.
Dubbed the “world whining tour” by the Israeli press, Arafat’s effort appears to have been a failure. Key European countries and Russia advised him not to make a unilateral move that would end the Oslo process and upset Washington, which has been using quiet diplomacy in Arab capitals to dissuade Arafat from declaring a state next month.
Beilin confirmed that Jerusalem was a primary sticking point of the Camp David summit, though he hastened to add this did not mean there was agreement on all other issues.
“It’s important for the Arabs to understand the importance of the holy places to us,” he said, mentioning the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. He said the Palestinians seemed to recognize the religious significance only of the Wall to Jews, and not the Temple Mount, which is believed to be the site of the two Holy Temples.
Beilin suggested that the kind of creative solution necessary to deal with Jerusalem would involve large measures of pragmatism. “The name of the game is accessibility,” he said, implying that Israel would be willing to give up sovereignty in some areas of the Old City as long as Jews were free to pray there. He also pointed up the importance to Israel of having Jerusalem acknowledged as its capital. “It would be a victory for us to have our capital recognized by the world for the first time,” he said.
He said that negotiations are continuing, and that Israel cannot afford to sit back and wait for Arafat to make concessions, even if the onus is on the Palestinians to be more flexible. Jerusalem is the key, he added, saying that if the issue can be resolved, the other pieces of the agreement will fall into place.
But Beilin warned against a second summit unless the issues clearly were worked out first. “A second summit would be much shorter,” he said, essentially an opportunity to sign agreements and give public recognition to President Clinton’s role.
If an agreement is reached, Beilin expressed confidence that the majority of Israelis and world Jewry would support it. If there is no agreement in the next six weeks, though, he said the best scenario would be to “maintain the status quo” by keeping the negotiations open and working to prevent violence. But he did not suggest that would be easy, or even possible.
As for the political equation, Prime Minister Ehud Barak will form a coalition based on the success or failure of the peace negotiations, Beilin said — another reason why the issue must be resolved very soon.
It is widely believed that if the talks fail, the embattled Barak could try to create a narrow coalition of 61 Knesset votes, with the help of the Arab parties, as the late Yitzchak Rabin did, or seek to widen his support with a unity government. But that, in effect, would put an end to aggressive efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Some say new elections in the next four months are inevitable, given Barak’s lack of a majority.
But Moshe Raviv, who recently retired after serving four decades in the Israeli foreign service, told The Jewish Week the majority of Knesset members do not want to hold new elections. Had they favored them, he said, “they would have passed a no-confidence motion” before going on a three-month recess.
Raviv, who served as ambassador to England, said “the real deadline” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the end of this year “because everyone would like the involvement of President Clinton, who was very helpful at Camp David.”
Visiting the United States on behalf of the Abraham Fund, which promotes Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, Raviv said most Israeli Arabs favor a Palestinian state but want to continue to be Israeli. “They are not going to change from Israeli democracy to Arafat autocracy,” he said.
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to the report.