Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not seem to be aware he was opening a Pandora’s box when he said last Thursday that he does not want to return to his home town of Safed and that a Palestinian state would be established only in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Abbas’s remarks, made during an interview with Channel 2, have since sparked an unprecedented wave of criticism from many Palestinians and Arabs.
He is being accused of “giving up the right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees and some of his political rivals have gone as far as calling for his execution for “high treason.”
What surprised Abbas was the fact that the strong condemnations were not only from Hamas and radical Palestinian groups, but also from ordinary Palestinians, including some of his political allies in the PLO.
If anything, the widespread denunciations show that the Palestinians remain strongly opposed to any form of concessions to Israel, especially with regards to the “right of return” for refugees to their former homes inside Israel.
But Abbas himself is partially responsible for the fact that Palestinians have been radicalized to a point where they see any talk of compromise with Israel as an act of “high treason.”
Over the years, Abbas has repeatedly declared that the “right of return” is a sacred issue and a “red line” that no Palestinian should ever dare to cross.
On several occasions, he and senior PA officials have reassured the refugees that the Palestinian leadership would never relinquish their “sacred” right.
Despite the reassurances, Abbas’s opponents continued to cast doubt about his true position regarding the “right of return." The PA president has already been criticized for opposing a third intifada and turning his organization into a “subcontractor” for the Israeli security establishment in the West Bank.
His remarks concerning the refugees have now provided his Palestinian and Arab enemies with additional ammunition that will be used against him.
A defiant Abbas has since moved into damage-control mode in face of the growing protests against him and his policies.
In a series of statements over the past three days, Abbas has vehemently denied allegations that he has given up the refugees’ “right of return.”
Judging from his response, one is left with the impression that Abbas regrets having ever given an interview to an Israeli media outlet.
His spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, tried to explain that the interview with Channel 2 was mainly intended to “affect Israeli public opinion.”
In other words, the spokesman is telling Palestinians and Arabs that Abbas is telling Israelis what they like to hear – namely that Palestinian refugees would not return to their former homes inside Israel.
Abbas is now accusing Hamas of inciting against him over the refugee issue.
He sees himself as a victim of a “conspiracy” concocted jointly by Hamas and the Israeli government to thwart his effort to upgrade the status of a Palestinian state at the UN later this month.
Yet Abbas’s explanations and attempts to clarify his position regarding the refugees so far seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
Israeli leaders and politicians who rushed to welcome Abbas’s remarks are probably unaware that they have caused him even more damage among Palestinians and Arabs.
Many Palestinians are now openly saying that Abbas does not have a mandate from his people to make concessions to Israel, particularly on the explosive refugee case.
As one Palestinian editor explained, “Abbas does not speak on behalf of 6,000,000 refugees” when he says he does not want to return to Safed.
The controversy over Abbas’s remarks means that many Palestinians are opposed to Abbas’s statehood bid at the UN at the end of this month. He is seeking UN recognition of a Palestinian state “only” within the pre-1967 lines – an idea that many Palestinians and Arabs are opposed to because they want to “liberate all of Palestine.”
Abbas’s statehood bid could therefore come back as a boomerang and deepen divisions among the Palestinians.
The public outcry over his remarks is further proof that no Palestinian leader has a mandate from his people to make any concessions to Israel.