from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Abbas and the "Right of Return" Will Defeat John Kerry

March 13, 2014

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When the Kerry negotiations fail to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, many observers in Europe and even some in the United States will attribute the disappointment to Israel and especially to “Israel’s right wing government” under Prime Minister Netanyahu.

One can reach that conclusion only by ignoring many statements being made and positions being taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The most recent remarks were made to young Fatah activists on March 6th and available at the MEMRI web site. Abbas’s subject was the “refugee” issue and the “right of return.” Here is an excerpt of what he said:

Every Palestinian, from Canada to Japan – that includes the Palestinians living abroad as well – will have to agree on the proposal. They will vote in favor or against. If they say "no," the proposal will not pass.…The Right of Return is a personal right. If you are a refugee, your son is a refugee as well. Perhaps you will decide to relinquish this right while your son decides not to, or vice versa. Your son is free to do so. When we say that this is a personal choice, it means that he can decide for himself. We will all be making a choice: One option is to remain where we are – in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon, and so on – and receive compensation…Of course…The second option is to go to another country, as part of an agreement. If someone wants to emigrate to Canada, he is free to do so. Wherever one goes, one remains a Palestinian. In this case, he will receive compensation as well. The third option is to decide to return to the Palestinian state, and to receive compensation. He can also decide to return to the State of Israel. In such a case, he will receive compensation and return….All the refugees who number 5 million today, along with their offspring, are considered 1948 refugees. There are no refugees who came from Nablus or Ramallah. They are all from Tiberius, Safed, Acre, Nazareth, Jaffa, Beersheba, and so on.

This is a remarkable statement and it pretty much kills the chances for a peace deal. Here’s why:

In any real negotiation, Israel and the PLO will need to make compromises and it’s obvious that the PLO will have to abandon the idea that five million Palestinians have the right to move to Israel. No Israeli government will ever sign a deal that would leave Israel a majority Arab country. As President Bush put it in 2004, “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

By making the “right of return” a personal right for each Palestinian, Abbas is saying the PLO has no right to negotiate over it and no right to sign a agreement that defeats or even limits that “right.” If that’s really the PLO position, there will never be an agreement.

Second, if Abbas doesn’t really mean it, he is narrowing his own negotiating room to near zero and obviously not preparing his on people for the compromises peace will entail.

Third, his definition of “refugee” is as broad as it could possibly be. According to Abbas, a Palestinian who left Israel in 1948 or 1967 has the right to move to Israel or to decline, but his “no” does not even bind his own foreign-born children. His son, and presumably grandson, who have never set foot in Israel and may well have citizenship in (for example) Canada have their own separate rights to move to Israel. Five million separate choices, says Abbas.

Fourth, Abbas has every one of those people receiving compensation. Those who move to Palestine get compensation; those who “return” to Israel get compensation; those who move to Canada or stay in Canada get compensation, and so on. So, the young man or woman born in Jordan or Canada and having full citizenship there, and staying there, gets compensation. It’s a nice fantasy for a politician to describe—every Palestinian takes part in this bonanza—but it is just that: a fantasy. Once again, it has nothing to do with actually making the choices peace will require nor with preparing Palestinians for the real future.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with having a referendum on a major national choice. The Swiss do it all the time, the UK may hold one on the EU, the Scots will have one on staying in the UK, and the Palestinians and Israelis may have referenda on any peace deal. The question is who gets to vote, and Abbas wants not only those living in the West Bank and Gaza and eligible to vote in Palestinian Authority elections to have that right, but “every Palestinian, from Canada to Japan.” He says there are five million refugees. When he was elected president in 2005, there were 800,000 voters and that was considered a two-thirds turnout, suggesting 1.2 million eligible voters. That means nearly four million Palestinians not living in the West Bank or Gaza would be eligible, according to Abbas, or perhaps a smaller number when people too young to vote are subtracted—but still several times more than the voters living in what will become Palestine.

It is obvious that a peace deal of remarkable balance and generosity in many and varied ways, but not granting the “right of return” that Abbas says belongs to every single Palestinian “refugee,” might well be rejected by Palestinians now in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. They have just been told, now in 2014 in the middle of peace negotiations, that Abbas will get them the right to move to Israel , and also been told that everyone will be getting compensation. If the final deal does not give them the ability to move to Israel, or they don’t think the compensation is adequate, they may well  vote no.

So Abbas’s maneuver here, as we approach the Kerry deadline in April, makes a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible. The terms he has just set forth will never be met. Rather than preparing for peace, he is not only making it impossible for himself to sign a deal, but also setting out terms that will make it impossible for his successors  to sign a deal.