If the Israeli left doesn’t act before it’s too late, the coming election campaign will focus on the following 90 words: “Since 1948, the Palestinians’ yearning has been enshrined in the twin principles of the `right of return’ and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state deriving the basis from International Law. The realization of the aspirations of the Palestinian people, as recognized in this agreement, includes the exercise of their right to self-determination and the comprehensive and just solution for the Palestinian refugees, based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, providing for their return and guaranteeing the future welfare and well-being of the refugees, thereby addressing the refugee problem in all its aspects.”

Yasser Arafat didn’t write those 90 words, nor did Nabil Sha’ath or Yasser Abed Rabbo. They are Article 7 of a document that was given to the official representatives of the Palestinian people at Taba, on January 23, 2001.

Then-justice minister Yossi Beilin, head of the Israeli team on the refugee issue, wrote them. The meaning is clear: acceptance of the idea of return. Israeli acceptance that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be based on adopting the principle of return as it appears in UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

UN resolution 194 was passed in the UN on December 11, 1948. Article 11 of the decision says clearly: “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” Therefore there’s no room for mumbo jumbo about this. No pulling of wool over the eyes. The combination of Article 7 in Beilin’s Taba document and the official language of 194 yields full Israeli and international recognition of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Palestine as soon as possible.

This is politically explosive material, and it’s doubtful if the state of Israel could withstand the blast.

Beilin believes he neutralized the device through two other formulations that appear in the document he drafted. Article 5 of the non-paper clarifies that “the desire to return will be implemented in such a way that will confirm to the existence of the state of Israel and the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Article 8 says that the return to Israel “will be limited to an agreed number of refugees.” Thus, seemingly, the dramatic document says one thing and its opposite. On the one hand, it gives the right of return to the refugees wherever they are, some 4 million people, a sweeping right of return (which includes Israel inside the Green Line boundaries) and on the other hand, it proposes mechanisms for immigration that will not allow more than a few tens of thousands to actually come.

That internal contradiction is dangerous. When Israel withdraws to the corrected 1967 borders and stands opposite a sovereign Palestinian state, its security margins will be very narrow. It cannot allow itself any mistakes or ambiguity. Therefore it needs an unequivocal Palestinian retreat from the demand for the right of return.

But the Taba document does not give Israel that bare necessary minimum. On the contrary, the Taba document intensifies the pressure for return by upgrading the principle. It turns UNGAR 194 from a sleepy recommendation by the UN to a relevant decision that makes a commitment and founded in international law. At the same time, Beilin’s document denies Israel the safety net that the Clinton Framework offered: an explicit declaration that the right of return does not extend to Israel proper. The former Israeli minister makes a whole series of proposals on critical issues that endanger Israel far more than the former American president’s. Thus, from the Israeli point of view, the Taba document is a breathtaking gamble. It opens the gates of sovereign Israel to an uncontrollable process of return.

Israeli media coverage of the Taba document was feeble. The most fateful 90 words in the history of Israeli diplomacy did not get much attention. But now, as welcome steps are being taken to form a new platform and framework for the Zionist left, it is impossible to ignore any longer what took place at Taba. Those who believe in the basic historical justice of the Zionist left must make clear that they reject what was done in the name of the historical left on January 23, 2001.

Yossi Sarid was at Taba. He does not like the Taba document and he well understands where it could lead Israel. He now has the responsibility to declare openly that the Taba document is annulled. The more responsible and wiser leader of the peace camp must make clear that the united peace party he is building disassociates itself from the Taba document as well as the spirit and concepts of Taba. If Sarid doesn’t do so, the new social democratic party will become, whether it likes it or not, the party for return and end up on the fringes of Israeli politics

This article ran in Haaretz on July 11, 2002