When Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met with 300 Israeli university students in Ramallah on Feb. 16, he accomplished more than one goal. He simultaneously sent a powerful message of peace to the Israeli public while indicating to his own people, and the region as a whole, the areas where Palestinian negotiators are willing to compromise.
The visit, which had been planned for last December but was postponed for logistical reasons, was organized by One Voice, an international organization whose mission is to “amplify the voices of Palestinians and Israelis.” The students chosen to attend were selected from 1,000 applicants who had written essays about why they would like to meet with the Palestinian leader.
Among the most highly quoted statements was Abbas’ insistence that he does not plan to "drown" Israel with refugees. This statement came after Labor Party Knesset member Hilik Bar, born in Safad, invited the Palestinian leader to visit his birthplace as a “tourist.” Abbas had previously said that he has no plans to return to the city where he was born.
In his talk to the Israeli students, Abbas covered almost all the issues of contention, including Jerusalem, water, borders, settlements, incitement to violence and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. In his answers, the Palestinian leader was honest and persuasive. For example, he admitted without reservation or explanation that the Palestinian media and school books do include "incitement," but argued that Israelis also "incite" against Palestinians. In order to deal with both, he argued, a third party, the United States, could be the judge as to what is and what is not considered incitement.
One of the issues that came up repeatedly in Abbas’ speech was Israeli apathy toward the Arab Peace Initiative. Abbas repeated a number of times that 57 Arab and Islamic countries are willing to normalize relations with Israel if the latter withdraws from the occupied Arab territories captured in 1967 and reaches a just and agreed upon resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Abbas said the plan has been translated and published in Hebrew, but that he is often surprised when he talks to Israelis who have never seen or read it. Abbas brought up the clause on refugees, explaining that the phrase “just and agreed upon” gives Israel a central role, indirectly implying that the Israelis have the right to veto proposals to which it objects.
At this point, Abbas’s gestures were telling. When he spoke about finding a solution to the refugee problem, he repeatedly used the phrase “creative solution” and made a gesture that means "money." His answer to a question about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state was short and to the point. He said that this condition was never made of Egypt or Jordan or during his talks with Israelis until 2010. Abbas also said, however, that he would be open to recognizing any name change made at the United Nations if Israel wanted to change its name, reiterating that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has recognized Israel since 1993.
Perhaps the most effective portion of the speech was when Abbas spoke about water, saying that it was unacceptable that Palestinians cannot use the rainwater that falls on their land. He repeated various statistics illustrating the great discrepancy between how much water Israelis, and especially settlers, use compared to the small fraction that Palestinians are allowed to use.
Abbas repeated his position that the Palestinians do not want an army, only a strong police force, as stated in the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian president also said that he wishes for Jerusalem to be undivided, and he scoffed at claims that he is a Holocaust denier, stating that he is well aware that millions of Jews were slaughtered during World War II.
Abbas appeared confident and was convincing in his arguments. He often bordered on pleading with the students to understand the Palestinian predicament in the face of a nonreceptive, official Israeli counterpart that responds to Palestinian compromises by pocketing these concessions and then asking for more.
That Abbas’ entire speech and his responses to questions, minus translation, were later broadcast on prime time Palestine TV reflects the seriousness of the ongoing talks and the general willingness of the Palestinian leader to make concessions. Abbas’ public statements were quickly attacked in Gaza by Hamas, which said that the Palestinian leader’s agreeing to meet “normalizes” relations with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative had called for normalizing relations only after an Israeli withdrawal.
The gathering with Israeli students and the honest and direct way in which the Palestinian leader spoke to them is certainly unprecedented. Abbas, often referred to as Abu Mazen, seemed like a grandfatherly figure trying hard to put concerned Israelis at ease. His warm and fuzzy approach will certainly help improve the climate in Israel for those in favor of peace.
Furthermore, Abbas' speaking in Arabic and Palestinian television rebroadcasting the speech show that he made no attempt to speak in "two tongues," as the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat was often accused of doing when he made gestures of peace.
It is unlikely, however, that Abbas' meeting will have the same effect as that of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat when he visited Jerusalem and spoke to the Knesset. The Israeli media generally reported that his speech was favorably received, but it does not appear that it will effect the sea change for which Abbas and his aides had hoped. The Israeli public will continue to look to its own prime minister for direction. The question remains, if and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a genuine move toward peace, will he find an Israeli public that is willing to embrace it?
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