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.