Mahmoud Abbas, the canny Palestinian President, is in the thick of a heavy political storm, after hinting that he may be willing to forego the right of war-displaced refugees to return — a position summarily rejected by rival Hamas, and received tepidly by most Israelis.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel-2, Mr. Abbas tackled all the major hot button issues, including the touchy subject of the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Mr. Abbas, who traces his roots from Safed, a northern Israeli city, said: “I visited Safed before, once. But I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not live there.”
Hamas, the embittered rival of Fatah, to which Mr. Abbas belongs, saw in the statement a betrayal of the right of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes in historic Palestine, now part of Israel. On Saturday, angry Hamas supporters, taking to the streets in Gaza, torched pictures of Mr. Abbas, amid high-decibel chants that slammed the Palestinian leader. Apparently aware that that his remarks were going to prove internally divisive, Mr. Abbas, nevertheless, had decided to take a big gamble.
Ahead of the interview, the Palestinian President had provoked the Americans and the Israelis by persisting with seeking an “observer” status for Palestine in the United Nations General Assembly later this month, risking the financial viability of his administration.Some observers are of view that by appearing before the Israeli television, Mr. Abbas had waved an olive branch, to soothe the frayed nerves of officials in the U.S. and Israeli establishments.
Mr. Abbas made two other critical points during his interview. He pledged that there would not be a third Intifada under his watch, and therefore no violent uprising. The Palestinian state, he reaffirmed, would be formed on territory that Israel had occupied in the 1967 war, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
On Saturday, Mr. Abbas qualified his statement on refugees by saying his remarks were personal, and did not reflect the official position of his government.
There has been a mixed response from the Israeli officialdom to Mr. Abbas’ carefully timed interview, just ahead of the U.S. elections. Israeli President Shimon Peres was effusive in his praise for Mr. Abbas, elevating the status of his remarks as “a brave and important public declaration”. Mr. Peres saied the Palestinian President “has proven through his deeds and his words that Israel has a real partner for peace. Abu Mazen [Mr. Abbas] rejects terrorism, guarantees that under his leadership he won’t allow the outbreak of a violent third intifada, understands that the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue cannot be in Israel’s territory and to the detriment of Israel’s character, and stretches out his hand to Israel to restart negotiations”.
On the other end of the Israeli political spectrum, the ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, said the interview was inconsequential for, in his view, Mr. Abbas “can no longer deliver the goods” since he lost Gaza to Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed scepticism:
“I watched President Abbas’ interview at the weekend, and I heard that since then he has already managed to recant”.