President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of the Palestinian Authority made headlines last week. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News, Abbas seemed to relinquish the demand for a right of return of refugees of 1948 to their former homes inside Israel, while reaffirming his commitment to non-violence.
Abbas himself is a refugee, having fled as a child from Safed (Tzfat) in the Galilee in northern Israel. Asked about his desire to visit his hometown, He replied: “It’s my right to see [Safed] but not to live there…. I am [a] refugee, but I’m living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts [are] Israel.... This is now and forever.”
Abbas’s statement merits attention in two different respects: in its substance and, more importantly, in the context in which it was delivered.
Did Abbas give up the right of return?
Unsurprisingly, the provocative substance of Abbas’s statement drew most attention. To Israeli ears, such words seem to confirm the central tenet of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process: Israel relinquishing the land it captured in 1967—on which a Palestinian state would be established—in exchange for Palestinian acceptance of the outcome of the war in 1948, the creation of the state of Israel.
For Israelis, the two state solution necessarily entails that the millions of Palestinians descended from the refugees of 1948 will settle permanently outside Israel, either in the Palestinian state or elsewhere, including the countries where their families have resided for over 60 years. For Palestinians, the right of the return of refugees is perhaps the most cherished national demand and a cornerstone of the Palestinian historical struggle. Giving up the right of return, in theory and not just in practice, seems like a betrayal of the Palestinian national cause.
Indeed, many in Israel who claim that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side have pointed to Abbas’s personal history in support of their view. Abbas’s predecessor Yasser Arafat, most Israelis believe, was unwilling to officially declare an end to Palestinian demands in the context of an agreement, or to fully disavow the use of violence to achieve his goals. Abbas, though far more resolute in his opposition to violence than Arafat, will never give up on the core Palestinian demand on refugees, the many adherents of the view that “there is no partner” contend.
Reactions to the statements seemed to conjure old division between supporters and opponents of the peace process. Abbas’ rivals in Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, reacted with outrage. Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas government in Gaza responded saying “It is not possible for any person, regardless of who he is ... to give up a hand's width of this Palestinian land, or to give up the right of return to our homes from which we were forced out.” Mahmoud A-Zahar, another Gaza Hamas leader, called Abbas a “collaborator with Israel” and Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stated that “If Abu Mazen does not want Safed, Safed would be honored not to host people like him.”
On the Israeli side, former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak reacted positively to Abbas’s statements. Barak criticized the handling of the Palestinian issue by the Netanyahu government (of which he is a senior member), stating that “one can no longer seriously claim that there is no partner.” Olmert responded at length, detailing the far reaching negotiations he held as prime minister with Abbas and claiming that the Palestinian leader had made identical statements, in private, back then. In the negotiations, he wrote, the sides agreed that the issue of refugees would be solved without altering the character of Israel. (This means that the vast majority of refugees would not, in practice, return to Israel, their rights notwithstanding.)
There was talk, though no agreement, Olmert continued, about the return of a few thousand refugees on a humanitarian basis. Like Barak, Olmert accused his successor Netanyahu of trying to prove to the Israeli public that there is no partner on the Palestinian side, despite evidence to the contrary.
As Olmert’s words attest, and as others have observed, Abbas's unscripted reply did not truly represent a departure from his long-held positions. According to secret documents uncovered in 2011, for example, Abbas reportedly conceded during his negotiations with Olmert that “it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million [refugees], or indeed one million.”
Speaking Directly to the Israelis
And while the substance of Abbas’s statement was not new, its context was instructive. After years of no meaningful negotiations between the two governments, Abbas spoke directly to the Israeli public on Israel's most widely viewed television channel. He likely did so for two reasons.
First, Israeli right-wing politicians claimed the interview was timed to coincide with the upcoming elections in Israel, scheduled for January 2013. Thus far in the campaign, almost all parties have eschewed the Palestinian issue and Abbas indeed may have hoped to bring the Palestinian question back to the fore.
The Israeli Labor party has provided the most notable example of the shift away from the Palestinian issue. Under the stewardship of its new leader, Shelly Yechimovich, the former party of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres now deliberately avoids questions of peace and diplomacy, preferring to cast itself as a social-democratic party focused on social and economic issues. Yechimovich has gone so far as say that the claim that Labor is not “leftist” at all. (In Israeli terms, “left” denotes a stance on the Palestinian question.)
Unlike Barak and Olmert—both ostensibly to her right in these elections—Yechimovich responded to Abbas’s statement with little fanfare. She called “satisfactory” Abbas’s statement that there will be no new armed intifada on his watch but only noted, with regard to the rest of his comments, that “[an Israeli] withdrawal to the 1967 borders, as they are today, is out of the question.”
Labor’s new stance is deliberate and calculated. Most Israelis today are no longer waiting for words of peace from the Palestinian leadership. As they see things, if Abbas was truly committed to a final status deal, he would have found a way to sign a deal with Olmert, just as Arafat would have negotiated in good faith with Barak at Camp David in 2000. This sentiment was articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu recently, at a memorial to Yitzhak Rabin: “[A]lthough six [Israeli] prime ministers have served since the Oslo Accords were signed, the Palestinian Authority has not completed a peace deal with any of them.” Right or wrong, Israelis are weary of the issue and deeply cynical about Palestinian intentions; a weariness and cynicism matched only by Palestinian attitudes toward Israel.
For the party that led the Oslo process in Israel, therefore, a shift away from the Palestinian question is an electoral necessity. Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu’s electoral partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, tried to associate Abbas’s statement with the Israeli left, naming Labor’s Shelly Yechimovich explicitly. He claimed that Abbas’s interview was aimed at intervening in the Israeli elections to aid the left which, he claimed, “represents the Palestinian interest inside Israel.”
Second, Abbas’s interview was also likely timed to come before the Palestinian bid for non-member observer status in the United Nations, due this coming month. Israeli leaders, and especially Lieberman, have made clear their intention to "punish" the Palestinian authority for such a bid, which they perceive as a unilateral step aimed at circumventing direct negotiations with Israel. Netanyahu perceived Abbas’s statement in just this light. Responding at a cabinet meeting, he dismissed Abbas’s words, saying: “I heard he has already gone back on his statement, but this just proves the importance of direct negotiations with no preconditions…. [P]eace can only be advanced around the negotiating table and not by unilateral decisions at the United Nations General Assembly, which will only postpone peace and bring instability.”
A harsh Israeli response to the Palestinian bid to the UN could have severe repercussions for the very viability of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas and his government today face a deep crisis of legitimacy among their own people and an acute financial crisis. Perhaps hoping to stave off Israeli ire over this “unilateral” step, Abbas once again made the case to the Israeli public that he is a man of peace and Israel’s best—yet fleeting—hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Indeed, whereas Abbas’s words are unlikely to sway Israeli voters, there is a genuine policy debate in Israel and Washington about the proper response to a Palestinian bid at the UN. Thus, policymakers may still have time to avoid a full blown crisis that could threaten the Palestinian Authority itself and entangle Israel in an upended order in the West Bank.
It is a testament to the sad state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians that Abbas’s seemingly bold words are met both with derision from Israelis and outrage from Palestinians. In another context, such statements might have helped sell painful compromises to the Israeli public. But in the present circumstances, the statement appears more like a cry for help by a battered and isolated leader.
Natan B. Sachs is a Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is currently writing a book on the domestic political underpinnings of Israel’s foreign policy. Follow him on twitter: @natansachs