Abbas, refugees, and return

Posted: November 3, 2012 by Rex Brynen in 1948, Israel, right of return

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent television interview with Israel’s Channel 2 is receiving considerable attention, in large part because of statements apparently downplaying the right of return to 1948 territories and suggesting that refugees should focus instead on a future state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem :

I visited Safad before once. But I want to see Safad. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine now for me is ‘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. I believe the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel.

Not surprisingly, the statement was quickly attacked by Hamas, and by many Palestinian activists (for typical example, see here at Electronic Intifada). It was also praised by Israeli President Shimon Peres, but generally dismissed by those in the Netanyahu government—after all, it runs rather counter to their preferred image of the PA/PLO as inflexible maximalists secretly bent on the destruction of Israel. Meanwhile, officials in Abbas’ office tried to spin the statement and reiterate his commitment to addressing the right of return in negotiations so as to mitigate political backlash.

Clever gambit to influence Israeli public opinion? Accidental frankness? Poor choice of English words? Typical confused Palestinian messaging? Lesson in the political difficulty of reconciling the hard reality that refugees are unlikely to ever enjoy a meaningful “right of return” to 1948 areas with deep-seated popular attachment to the normative principle? All of the above?

Take your pick.

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