Abu Mazen and the refugees II

Israel should recognize its own self interest in keeping the two-state idea alive.

refugee ii 521 (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
refugee ii 521
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s early November comments on Israeli TV, on violence, borders and refugees, were unusual in their undisguised moderation.
The Palestinian leader made three very important points: that as long as he is in office the Palestinians will not resort to force; that the right of refugee return to Israel proper is not a practical option, by noting that he himself has no intention of returning to live in his hometown, Safed; and that, as far as he is concerned, Palestine is the West Bank and Gaza within the confines of the 1967 boundaries, including East Jerusalem.
What lies beyond those lines is Israel, “now and forever”.
Though unusual, these positions are not radically different from statements made on occasion by Abbas (Abu Mazen) even when speaking to Arab audiences. In Gaza, in late 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Abbas criticized the use of force as a Palestinian mistake that would make the attainment of independence that much harder.
Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that in the closed internal Palestinian discussions during the negotiations with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, Abbas explained to his colleagues that it would be unrealistic to expect Israel to accept a return of millions of Palestinian refugees that would dilute its Jewish character. There is, therefore, reason to believe that Abbas’s recent statements are genuine representations of his moderation and a full endorsement of the two-state solution as the end of conflict with Israel. Such interlocutors have been few and far between on the Palestinian side and Israel is unlikely to find such pragmatic Palestinian partners in the future.
But as has happened so often in the past, these moderate statements, especially on the right of return, elicited a howl of protest from Hamas and other Palestinian sources, leading to an immediate retraction by Abbas himself and a chorus of other spokespersons on his behalf.
Throughout the almost 20 years of on and off negotiations since Oslo, the Palestinians have spoken in private on the refugee question in relative moderation, only to say quite the opposite in public. The Palestinian public has never been conditioned to accept historical concessions on this issue, nor to acquiesce in the two-state solution as the ultimate “end of conflict.” Abbas, on the other hand, did just that with his emphasis on the 1967 boundaries, for “now and forever.”
Abbas’s great flaw is not his “duplicity,” as many on the Israeli side tend to argue, but his incapacity to deliver his people. Instead of dismissing his remarks as just another instance of Palestinian deception and attempted interference in Israel’s upcoming elections, Israel should have welcomed the Palestinian leader’s moderation and invited him to renewed negotiations on a two-state solution within agreed terms of reference.
Israel’s knee-jerk rejectionism only disheartens the moderates and reinforces the extremists.
Rather than bending over backwards to find every reason not to negotiate in earnest, Israel should recognize its own self-interest in keeping the two-state idea alive. After all, a one-state “solution,” where the Jews eventually become the minority, will hardly serve the Zionist cause. Israel should have made a serious offer to enter negotiations on borders first, leaving the more contentious issues of Jerusalem and refugees for later. It is quite likely that the Palestinians would have rejected such an offer and insisted on discussing all final-status issues here and now, leading to yet another dead end.
But then, having made a genuine peace overture, Israel could have many in the international community on its side for another unilateral move, this time possibly coordinated with the Palestinians, through the good offices of the United States. By withdrawing from enough of the West Bank to provide for a Palestinian state-in-the-making, Israel could replace the current impasse with a revived two-state dynamic – not to do the Palestinians or the rest of the world a favor, but to save Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
Asher Susser, a Tel Aviv University Middle Eastern History professor, is the author of the recent Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative.