Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas put himself in a pot of hot water last weekend when he seemed to suggest, live on Israeli television, that Palestinian refugees should forget about returning to their original homes in Israeli territory if they wanted to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
Abbas used his personal life to drill home the point, saying that he has accepted the fact he cannot permanently return to the childhood home from which he was expelled in Israel’s 1948 war of independence.
The right of return, in which refugees and their descendants, estimated at five to six million, can reclaim their homes in Israel proper, is seen by many Palestinians as the most sensitive aspect of their entire conflict with Israel. For decades, Palestinian negotiators have insisted that those who were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war be allowed to reclaim their property, despite the fact that those houses now reside in the internationally-recognized state of Israel. Many families still have keys to their homes: a symbolic touch that illustrates just how important the right of return is to the millions of Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries.
Israel, however, has never seriously considered the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return. The influx of millions of Palestinians into what is now Israel would compromise the Jewish character of the state. Thus, much like settlement building in the West Bank and the final status of Jerusalem, the right of return has been among the most complicated issues of the peace process.
Abbas’ realization that he cannot reclaim his former home has therefore been perceived by a number of Israeli and Palestinian commentators as a change of tact by the Palestinian president.
Is Mahmoud Abbas, a man who previously took the common Palestinian position, reversing his tone on the issue of the right of return? Serving and former Israeli officials, some of whom have been involved in the peace process for years, believe that this may well be the case. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert lauded Abbas’ televised comments as a demonstration of his peacemaking sincerity. President Shimon Peres hailed the Palestinian leader’s words as “courageous.”
Others, like incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been more guarded. After the interview was broadcast, Netanyahu addressed his cabinet and said that the only way the Palestinians can be taken seriously is if they return to substantive talks and dropped their demands for preconditions.
Abbas’ opponents in Hamas are infuriated that he would concede one of the most vital issues in the peace process without demanding anything in return. Demonstrations were set up in the Gaza Strip where Hamas supporters burned posters of the Palestinian president and called him a traitor.
Whatever he wanted to convey in the interview, Abbas scored at least a tactical victory by thrusting Palestine back into Israel’s political discourse where the threat of a nuclear armed Iran has been the focus of foreign relations in recent years. With little of a peace process to speak of in the last four years, trying to attain a two-state solution has taken on a secondary, if not tertiary importance to many Israeli politicians. That order may have just been shuffled.
Abbas’ engagement on Israeli television, while controversial and potentially unsettling for his political fortunes, has jolted the Israeli-Palestinian question back onto the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, just as the country is preparing for parliamentary elections.