The resonance of Abbas’ statements on the right of return

Netanyahu called them a bluff, but Peres, Barak, Olmert and Livni called them ‘brave.’ With luck, they could be a catalyst for shaking things up around here.  

To Israelis who genuinely support the two-state solution, Mahmoud Abbas’ interview on Channel 2 last Friday was remarkably far-reaching and courageous, especially what he said about the right of return. Referring to Safed, the Galilee town his family and other Palestinian residents fled during the 1948 war, he said in English:

It is my right to see it, but not to live there.

This enraged Palestinians; thousands of Gazans protested and burned photos of him. To clarify, Abbas told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Hayat:

What I said about Safed is my personal stance. It means nothing about giving up the right of return. No one would give up their right of return. But all those international formulas, especially that of [UN Resolution] 194, speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, and ‘agreed-upon’ means on the part of Israel.

So has Abbas given up the right of return, or hasn’t he? In the view of the Netanyahu government and its supporters, he hasn’t – the Channel 2 interview was a bluff intended to sucker Israelis, and the interview with Al-Hayat was a retraction that revealed his true beliefs, because what Arab leaders say “in Arabic” is what counts.

For Netanyahu and the Israeli mainstream, giving up the right of return is one of the endless number of hoops the Palestinians must jump through. What they mean by giving it up is that the Palestinians must announce that they are wrong and Israel is right: Safed, Haifa, Jaffa and the rest of the lands the Palestinians fled or were expelled from rightfully belong to Israel, not to them. They have to renounce their claim to their old homeland not only in practice, but in principle; not only as a matter of politics, but of faith; not only in their heads, but in their hearts. That’s “giving up the right of return.” (And when they do that, we’ll find them some more hoops.)

No, Abbas didn’t go nearly that far, and those who insist that he do so are political sadists. Their goal is the Palestinians’ humiliation, nothing else.

What Abbas did do – in the Channel 2 interview, in the Al-Hayat interview, and, according to Palileaks and Ehud Olmert, in the 2008 Annapolis peace talks – is give up his goal of fully implementing the right of return. He gave up the right of return not in principle, but in practice, most remarkably by saying to Al-Hayat – in Arabic – that “all those international formulas” for solving the refugee problem are contingent on Israel’s agreement.

If not for the presidential election, this might make some waves in the  U.S., especially since Shimon Peres, Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak went head-on against Netanyahu over Abbas’ remarks, calling them a “brave” overture that Israel ought to respond to in kind. Hopefully, Olmert and Livni will run in the Israeli elections on this issue and remind the public that we still actually do have a problem with the Palestinians. Hopefully, Obama will get re-elected and lead enough Israelis to conclude that Netanyahu has become more of a burden to the country than an asset. Since Olmert and Livni reportedly won’t run unless Obama wins, we’ll be wiser all around after Tuesday night.