Abbas: We can't expect Israel to take in a million refugees

In leaked documents, PA prime minister acknowledges that insisting on the "right of return" would be "illogical" and "would mean the end of Israel."

Abbas in Greece 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Abbas in Greece 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
A second cache of Palestinian documents released by Al- Jazeera on Monday night showed Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his team, in Ramallah in June 2009, discussing the notion of 10,000 refugees and their families returning to Israel as part of a final peace agreement, as ostensibly offered by former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
In a dramatic comment on the refugee issue, furthermore, at an internal meeting that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had with the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit on March 29, 2008, Abbas said, “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or even 1 million – that would mean the end of Israel.
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They said 5,000 over five years.
That is even less than family reunification and it is unacceptable.
There also has to be compensation, which has to come from the Absentee Property fund.”
Both Al-Jazeera and Britain’s Guardian newspaper put a decisively negative spin on the story, with the Guardian’s website headline reading “Papers reveal how Palestinian leaders gave up fight over refugees.”
The refugee issue has emerged as one of the major obstacles to any agreement.
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In a meeting on January 27, 2008, soon after the Annapolis conference, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei implied a readiness to solve the issue and said that if the Arab countries would “be part of the solution, there will be no problem in this issue.”
He added that the Palestinians could coordinate the matter with Jordan and even Syria.
“Even the Syrians want to be part of the process,” Qurei said, “and they don’t want to sit with you to discuss the matter, but with us.”
Erekat quipped at the meeting, “Whoever will be able to reach an agreement to solve this conflict will be the most important figure in the region after Jesus Christ!”
Also, according to the Guardian piece based on the documents, then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni – essentially adopting an idea put forth by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – proposed a land swap that would place some Arab towns now in Israel into a future Palestinian state in exchange for placing some settlements within Israel.
Then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, according to the paper, suggested that some Palestinian refugees could be resettled in South America – for example, in Chile and Argentina.
Ma'aleh Adumim bone of contention with Palestinians
In documents released Sunday night, it became clear that while much of the Israeli public believed that Ma’aleh Adumim was part of the Israeli consensus and would be part of Israel in any agreement, this was a major bone of contention with the Palestinians.
The first batch of documents showed Palestinian insistence that the large settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel become part of a Palestinian state, even if it meant the settlers remained there under Palestinian sovereignty. While at first Livni said this was an interesting idea she would have to think about, a few weeks later she said it was completely unrealistic because the settlers would be killed.
In a meeting at the King David Hotel on May 4, 2008, between Livni and Qurei, the latter said Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Har Homa and Ariel “cannot be included in a swap under any condition.”
This was Qurei’s position even as the Palestinians indicated they were ready for Israel to annex the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, with the exception of Har Homa.
The documents show that the Palestinians see the 1967 lines as a baseline, and view an agreement to a land swap for land that will be annexed to Israel as a concession. The Palestinian position, as laid out in the meeting, was that any land swap needed to be in the same area, meaning that if Israel annexed a Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the Green Line, it would have to give up land in the Jerusalem area in return.
When it became clear during the discussion that the PA position was that the settlers in Ma’aleh Adumim did not have to be evacuated, PLO chief negotiator Erekat said to Livni, “Can you imagine that you accept for the sake of peace to have Jews as citizens with full rights in Palestine like Arab Israelis?” Livni replied, “But how can I provide Israelis living in Palestine with security?” To which Erekat responded, “Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have. Can you imagine that this will happen one day?” One of the Israeli negotiators in the room, Udi Dekel, then interjected, “I do not have such fancy.”
Livni, however, was more diplomatic. “I have to think about this. I do not know.
You have proposed something, but I believe we have to be creative. My problem is that of security. Some said to me that there would be violence among my people if I evacuated them [from the settlements], but the pressure will be less if I give the right to choose. I cannot bear the responsibility of their life in case they are exposed to danger and then the army will have to interfere.
It is a legitimate question but we need to think about it.”
The issue came up again some three weeks later, in which Qurei said that the Jews in Ma’aleh Adumim “can live under Palestinian rule,” to which Livni replied, “You know this is not realistic.”
Qurei then said, “So take them [out], like you did in Gaza.” To which Livni responded, “We are going to [take out many settlers].”
Later in the discussion Qurei said he didn’t mind if the Israelis became Palestinian citizens, to which Livni replied, “You know this is not realistic. They will kill them the next day.”
At a meeting in mid-June 2008 between Livni, Qurei and Rice, Livni asked Qurei whether his problem with Ma’aleh Adumim was because of its size or location.
His reply was that it blocked Jerusalem from the east, and that Jerusalem was already blocked from the south.
“Perhaps Ma’aleh Adumim will remain under Palestinian sovereignty and it could be a model for cooperation and coexistence,” he said.
“We may also have international forces and make security arrangements for some time. It is the location of Ma’aleh Adumim [that is the problem], not its size.”
Qurei: Ariel set up to control water basin
The problem with Ariel, he said, was that it “was set up on the largest water basin. It was not set up simply to provide Israelis with housing units, but rather to control the water basin.” Livni replied, “The idea behind our desire to annex Ariel settlement was not to get more water but because thousands of people live there. We want to have an answer for those who have lived there for 40 years.”
Rice, at a meeting held a month later, said that no Israeli leader would cede Ma’aleh Adumim, and that if the Palestinians insisted on the matter, “then you won’t have a state!”
Though the publication of the documents created a storm in the Palestinian Authority Monday, the official response in Jerusalem was muted, with both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office declining comment on the matter.
Only Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman related to the documents at all, saying in an Israel Radio interview that the documents showed that even “the most left wing” Israeli government of Livni and Ehud Olmert could not reach an agreement with the PA.
“I think they show that if the government of Olmert and Tzipi Livni did not succeed in coming to an agreement with the Palestinians, then that is a sign that everyone will in the end reach the conclusion that the only way is a long term interim agreement.”
Lieberman’s position is that a final agreement at this time is impossible, and that the goal at this time should be a long-term interim agreement.
He also said it was “interesting” that Livni proposed his land swap idea of Arab towns for settlements.
Livni’s associates responded to the new report by stating that during the talks, only four Israeli Arab border towns were raised as possibilities to be included in a Palestinian state, even though they are on the Israeli side.
They said that when the Palestinians rejected the idea, the talks moved on.
Sources close to Livni also said that during the talks she made a statement rejecting the application of international law, but said she was inaccurately quoted in the document.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.