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Mahmoud Abbas Channels Paula Abdul

Palestinian leader takes two steps forward on right of return, two steps back

Adam Chandler
November 05, 2012
Mahmoud Abbas(AFP)
Mahmoud Abbas(AFP)

At the end of last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went on a charm offensive with the Israeli media. Abbas denounced the Hamas-led rocket barrage from Gaza upon communities in southern Israel and said that under his leadership there would be no new intifada to fear. But then, he took a pretty big step and declared that the Palestinian fantasy of the right of return–a fantasy trammeled by 45 years of reality–was no longer his fantasy.

“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.”

This was a pretty big departure. The demand that Palestinians maintain the right of return is essentially their way of saying that they wish to destroy Israel by flooding it with refugees that would alter the demographic possibility of Israel remaining a democratic, Jewish state.

Israeli leaders on the center/center-left like Shimon Peres saw it as a signal that Abbas was a viable partner for peace and was moderating his stance. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed the statements as an oft-repeated refrain that was meaningless. Avigdor Lieberman threw a hot cup of nana tea against a wall. Hamas, with whom Abbas is feuding for the soul of the Palestinian future, took him to task for it. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas in Gaza, called the remarks “extremely dangerous.”

Abbas backtracked on the statement after photographs of him were burned(!) among many responses, saying that he personally wasn’t going to go back to his hometown of Safed, but that every other Palestinian should be able to go back. It was a failure of will to say the least. Lisa Beyer at Bloomberg View sums it up nicely:

That was an unfortunate U-turn. Abbas does his people no good feeding them a liturgy of false hope. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian people are in any mood for the concessions each side must make to secure a final peace agreement. (For Israelis, the toughest compromise will be dividing Jerusalem.) For it to happen, courageous leaders will have to get ahead of their constituents and convince them to come along.

Mahmoud Abbas showed signs of pursuing that approach last week. He should stick with it — for the sake of his own story and his people’s.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.