The following account came in from the World Union of Meretz:
The debate, which was part of the Doha Debates series chaired by Tim Sebastian, centered on the question of the Palestinian right of return.
Laying out the Israeli case against the Palestinian right of return, Yossi Beilin argued that no Israeli government will ever agree to the Palestinian claim to a “right of return,” since the acceptance of such a claim would undermine the very existence of a Jewish state. Moreover, the very logic of the two-state solution, which is the only widely acceptable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stipulates that there be two nation-states – a Jewish one and a Palestinian one – living side by side. In contrast, any peace agreement that accepted the right of return would mean that a Palestinian state would supplant the Israeli one, and that another a Palestinian state would be established alongside it, resulting in two Palestinian states and no Jewish one.
Yet if Israel will never accept the Palestinian claim to a right of return, Yossi added, nor should the Palestinians be expected to give up on it. Instead, Yossi called for a pragmatic approach along the lines of the Geneva Initiative, which outlines a practical and definitive solution to the problem of the refugees in the context of a package deal that includes all the other outstanding issues between the two sides, including Jerusalem and Temple Mount.
Pointing out that the Geneva Initiative does not make any mention of the right of return, Yossi asserted that no political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should be expected either to accept or reject the Palestinian right of return, since the issue is best relegated to the place of national mythology, where people’s dreams and aspirations can live on without jeopardizing their collective future. Indeed, easy as it is, and even appropriate, for historians like Ilan Pappe (who participated in the debate) to speak in favor of the Palestinian right of return, the role of statesmen and politicians on both sides, Yossi concluded, was to make sure that people’s dreams do not become national nightmares.
In arguing against the political viability of the Palestinian right of return, Yossi was joined by Bassem Eid, a long-time Palestinian human rights campaigner. They were challenged by Israeli academic Ilan Pappe and Ali Abunimah, an American of Palestinian origin living in Chicago.
One final note: The debate took place in front of an audience made up of people living in or visiting Qatar, with university and high-school students from a wide range of mostly Arab and Muslim countries comprising about half of the audience. The debate culminated in a vote of the audience, almost 82% of which voted that the Palestinians should not give up their right of return, against 18% who voted that they should. At the same time that this debate took place, Arab League ministers convened in Riyadh and debated the same topic in the context of their deliberations on the regional peace initiative. Their final draft resolution, reiterating the language of the Arab Peace Initiative from Beirut, March 2002, called for a “just solution” to the problem of the Palestinian refugees but – significantly – avoided any mention of the phrase “right of return.”