Mahmoud Abbas Was Right About the Right of Return
When a leader thinks he has little time left to shape a legacy, interesting things can happen. So it was that at age 77, with his people's cause moribund, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took a risk last week, breaking a taboo that must be shattered to achieve a Palestinian state.
In an interview on Israeli TV, Abbas said he would like to visit his childhood home of Safed, in what has been northern Israel since 1948. But he said it was not his right to live there. His remark suggested that, in peace talks, he would be willing to relinquish the "right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
In the past, Palestinian negotiators quietly made clear that they would not insist on flooding Israel with refugees that would dilute if not erase the country's Jewish majority. Instead, discussions focused on allowing as many as 100,000 to resettle in Israel and on compensating the others for their losses. Yet no Palestinian leader has publicly advocated for this necessary concession.
In doing so, Abbas put both his relevance and his life in danger. He was immediately denounced by a wide range of Palestinian commentators as a traitor or a fool. His picture was burned in protests. Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was preoccupied with worries that he would be assassinated if he compromised on the right of return, and in his final years turned away from peace talks. The spirit of the negotiations was poisoned by the subsequent second Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Abbas promised in his interview that there would be no third intifada under his leadership. Yet after his Safed comment caused such an uproar, he said he was expressing only his personal view about returning to Israel and that the refugees were a "sacred matter."
That was an unfortunate U-turn. Abbas does his people no good feeding them a liturgy of false hope. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian people are in any mood for the concessions each side must make to secure a final peace agreement. (For Israelis, the toughest compromise will be dividing Jerusalem.) For it to happen, courageous leaders will have to get ahead of their constituents and convince them to come along.
Mahmoud Abbas showed signs of pursuing that approach last week. He should stick with it -- for the sake of his own story and his people's.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
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