Netanyahu Must Respond to Abbas

Article Summary
In an interview on Israeli television, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he ‘’does not intend to go back to Safed,’’ his native town. Israel must seize this opportunity to test both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, writes Ben-Dror Yemini.

More on this topic: Palestinians Need to See Full Abbas Interview

The latest statements of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) in an interview on Channel 2, which hinted at a concession on the right of return, require a serious and proactive Israeli response.

The display of Palestinian moderation is an old story. Let’s put aside, for a moment, the history of the PLO. A few changes have been made since that time. After the release of the “Palestine Papers,” it seemed that the Palestinians had made serious concessions. Those were the headlines in The Guardian and Al-Jazeera, which had obtained the leaked documents. But a thorough examination of the papers themselves revealed that the big concessions were in headlines and op-eds. Al-Jazeera sought this angle to strengthen Hamas. The Guardian wanted it in order to embarrass Israel.

When Saeb Erekat cried out in protest, claiming that such statements were never made, he was most certainly correct. There was one document, signed by Erekat, which included a concrete concession on the right of return — except that the same document wasn’t a part of the negotiations, and it was formulated months after the end of the talks. It was a memo intended for the European Union, to prove that the Palestinians presented a moderate position and that the responsibility for failure lay on Israel’s shoulders.

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The same Erekat, the chief negotiator with Israel, expressed opposite positions, according to which the Palestinians only needed to wait because time would work in their favor. It’s also hard to forget the declaration made by Abbas Zaki, a senior Palestinian Authority official, who explained in an interview with Al-Jazeera that the Palestinian demand to return to ’67 borders involves “wiping Israel off the map.” 

An examination of the statements made recently by Abu Mazen and senior PA officials reveals a confused zigzag. Abu Mazen’s latest statement in the interview with Udi Segal on Channel 2, which suggests he is relinquishing the right of return, is another link in a chain, but one that mustn’t be ignored. Israel should take this fresh statement of Abu Mazen seriously — it should even leverage it, and put it to the test. Abu Mazen, essentially, took a significant step that can be interpreted as giving up on the right of return, certainly on a mass right of return.

It’s a step in the right direction. A Palestinian return is a red line for a vast majority of Israelis. And if Abu Mazen is willing to give it up, that certainly justifies a serious Israeli response. “If you’re serious,” Netanyahu should declare, “then there’s something to talk about. Let’s sit.”

It’s true that there were also contradicting statements in the same interview, like the claim that Olmert’s offers were a starting point for negotiations. That’s a sure way to pre-emptively ensure the failure of any discussions. But there’s no need to expect Abu Mazen to provide all of the concessions in advance, just like there is no need to make similar demands of Netanyahu. As soon as the biggest obstacle — meaning the right of return — is removed, and as soon as there is an agreement on land swaps — meaning settlement blocs stay put — that is a serious starting point for negotiations.

It is entirely possible that just as in the past, Abu Mazen’s statement was meant for international and Israeli ears alone. But the Palestinians are listening. Hamas already responded like a raging bull. And it can be assumed that there are also Israelis who are closer to Hamas than to peace, who will claim, “Abu Mazen sold our souls to the devil.”

It is against this backdrop that Israel should — must — extend a hand to leverage the offer. If Abu Mazen folds and tries to get out of it, he will reveal the extent of his deceit. If he positively responds, it will be a demonstration of leadership that both the Palestinians and the Israelis need.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin explained last week that he and his ilk are leading us, slowly but surely, toward a binational state. Netanyahu himself demands that Abu Mazen recognize a Jewish state. This demand should also be directed at the prime minister of Israel. Abu Mazen took a small step, which could prove to be meaningless. But in any case, it is a step that mustn’t be ignored. The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court. He should do something with it.

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Found in: negotiations, right, palestinian, israel, hamas, benjamin netanyahu
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