Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stated Thursday that he was not seeking the right to live in Israel, even though he was born in Safed, in remarks that implied a moderated stance on the longstanding Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel for millions of refugees and descendants of refugees.Is this a change in policy?
Abbas also said explicitly that the Palestinians have no territorial demands on Israel in its pre-1967 lines.
Asked in a Channel 2 News interview what he considered to be Palestine, Abbas responded that “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever … This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah.”
Interviewer Udi Segal cut in: “Sometimes your official television… speak(s) about Acre and Ramle and Jaffa [all cities within sovereign Israel] as ‘Palestine.’”
“I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine,” said Abbas, “and the other parts (are) Israel.”
Noting that he himself was born in Safed, in what since 1948 has been northern Israel, Abbas said he had visited the town and would like to see it again, but not to make his home there. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he said, in comments that, if applied to all Palestinian refugees and descendants, would represent a dramatic shift in Palestinian policy.
So far, the Fatah media has not commented on the interview at all. Islamic Jihad-oriented media that did note the interview so far did not see anything explosive in Abbas' declaration that he, personally, accepts that he has no right to live in Safed.
And Hamas interpreted Abbas' statements as being his own personal view and not an official policy:
Hamas denounced Abbas, saying he spoke only for himself.Since Western media has picked up on this point, no doubt Fatah and the PA will be forced to issue a clarification within a few hours. It would be most surprising if they say that the official PLO position is that the "right of return" is no longer considered a right. Anyone who has read their statements in Arabic over the years knows that it is considered sacrosanct.
"No Palestinian would accept ceding the right of our people to return to homes, villages and towns from which they were displaced," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
"If Abu Mazen (Abbas) does not want Safed, Safed would be honored not to host people like him."
So how will his statement be reconciled with the long-standing insistence on "return?"
Here is one way that Abbas' statement can be true without the PLO changing its position.
Paragraph 11 of UNGA 194, the source of the imaginary "right of return," says
Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return...
The General Assembly resolution, which has no legal weight, says that only those refugees wishing to return should be allowed to do so (the word "right" was deliberately left out, by the way.)
Abbas is defining himself as a refugee who chooses not to return under UNGA 194. But that in no way limits how the Arab world (mis)interprets UNGA 194, and therefore it does not impact the PLO's negotiating position in the least.
This way Abbas can continue the long Arab game of telling gullible Westerners what they want to hear without actually saying what they want so desperately to believe he said.
Other relevant posts on UNGA 194:
The UN's 1950 interpretation of the "right to return"
The part of UNGA 194 that the Arabs ignore
Why Palestinian Arabs will never negotiate on "return"
Efraim Karsh on Resolution 194
The "right of return" is the opposite of human rights
PLO reiterates "right of return" has nothing to do with statehood