+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

The resonance of Abbas' statements on the right of return

Netanyahu called them a bluff, but Peres, Barak, Olmert and Livni called them ‘brave.’ With luck, they could be a catalyst for shaking things up around here.  

To Israelis who genuinely support the two-state solution, Mahmoud Abbas’ interview on Channel 2 last Friday was remarkably far-reaching and courageous, especially what he said about the right of return. Referring to Safed, the Galilee town his family and other Palestinian residents fled during the 1948 war, he said in English:

It is my right to see it, but not to live there.

This enraged Palestinians; thousands of Gazans protested and burned photos of him. To clarify, Abbas told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Hayat:

What I said about Safed is my personal stance. It means nothing about giving up the right of return. No one would give up their right of return. But all those international formulas, especially that of [UN Resolution] 194, speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, and ‘agreed-upon’ means on the part of Israel.

So has Abbas given up the right of return, or hasn’t he? In the view of the Netanyahu government and its supporters, he hasn’t – the Channel 2 interview was a bluff intended to sucker Israelis, and the interview with Al-Hayat was a retraction that revealed his true beliefs, because what Arab leaders say “in Arabic” is what counts.

For Netanyahu and the Israeli mainstream, giving up the right of return is one of the endless number of hoops the Palestinians must jump through. What they mean by giving it up is that the Palestinians must announce that they are wrong and Israel is right: Safed, Haifa, Jaffa and the rest of the lands the Palestinians fled or were expelled from rightfully belong to Israel, not to them. They have to renounce their claim to their old homeland not only in practice, but in principle; not only as a matter of politics, but of faith; not only in their heads, but in their hearts. That’s “giving up the right of return.” (And when they do that, we’ll find them some more hoops.)

No, Abbas didn’t go nearly that far, and those who insist that he do so are political sadists. Their goal is the Palestinians’ humiliation, nothing else.

What Abbas did do – in the Channel 2 interview, in the Al-Hayat interview, and, according to Palileaks and Ehud Olmert, in the 2008 Annapolis peace talks – is give up his goal of fully implementing the right of return. He gave up the right of return not in principle, but in practice, most remarkably by saying to Al-Hayat – in Arabic – that “all those international formulas” for solving the refugee problem are contingent on Israel’s agreement.

If not for the presidential election, this might make some waves in the  U.S., especially since Shimon Peres, Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak went head-on against Netanyahu over Abbas’ remarks, calling them a “brave” overture that Israel ought to respond to in kind. Hopefully, Olmert and Livni will run in the Israeli elections on this issue and remind the public that we still actually do have a problem with the Palestinians. Hopefully, Obama will get re-elected and lead enough Israelis to conclude that Netanyahu has become more of a burden to the country than an asset. Since Olmert and Livni reportedly won’t run unless Obama wins, we’ll be wiser all around after Tuesday night.

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

    * Required


    1. rsgengland

      Without sorting out the ‘Palestinian right of return’ there will be no solution to the conflict . Everywhere else the refugee problems get sorted , even if there is ongoing conflict .
      This issue has its own inbuilt problems , the main one being UNWRA.
      1) They have rewritten the rules on refugees
      2) They have a vested interest in keeping the conflict alive ; jobs etc.
      3) 850000 Jewish refugees who fled the Arab/Muslim lands due to Antisemitism , leaving their possessions , property and thousands of years of culture behind .It certainly was not Zionism that caused their departure ,as if it was their departure would have been planned and orderly after disposing of their possessions

      Reply to Comment
      • leen

        The reason why the refugees status under UNRWA have a different one from UNHRC is because it is a collective issue rather than an individual issue. A lot of the refugees who are registered under UNHCR flee their home countries because of host of problems, intending to never come back, whether it is religious/ethnic persecution, displacement as a result of ongoing war, fear for the safety of their lives, etc. Theoretically, if regime has changed, things have gotten better, they can come back and live in their home countries again. Take for example the Syrian refugees. As a result of the fighting between the rebels and Assad, once the regime change occurs where Assad is overthrown, refugees under the UNHRC can return to Syria if they chose to, however they also have the choice to be absorbed into their host country.
        This is what happened to many Kosovars who fleed Kosovo with the fighting with Serbia. However, when things changed, even Kosovars had the right to go back to their homes in Kosovo and even acquire Kosovor citizenship.
        Same thing with German Jews. After the fall of the Nazi regimes, those who escaped the concentration camps have every right to go back to Germany, live as German citizens, receive compensation as they were victims of the Holocaust, should they chose to. Same thing with France. Even if you are a descendant of a German mother or father, you are entitled to the same benefits, to acquire German citizenship and ‘return’ to country of origin, again, should you chose to.

        Now has any of this happened for the Palestinian refugees or their descendants? Of course not, they are not even allowed to visit their villages and homes.
        So your comparison to the rest of refugees is a non-starter. However regarding your point about Jewish refugees from arab countries, it will be extremely interesting what will be in store after the Arab revolution is done in a couple of decades. But again dwelling on authoritarian regimes behavior and comparing it to Israel doesn’t say much about Israel’s behavior to be honest.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          There is no difference between one individual forced to flee his home and another individual forced to flee his home. None of your nonsensical yammering will find any meaningful distinction between the Palestinian case and say the Sudetenland German case.

          This special treatment that Palestinian refugees have been getting for 65 years has crossed all bounds of common sense and will inevitably cease.

          Reply to Comment
        • andrew r

          Thank you, I would vote this comment up if that feature existed.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      1. International law. Israel is recognized as a sovereign state. The last armistice boundaries (1949 – pre-67) are the internationally accepted borders of Israel. Israeli extensions of sovereignty (temporary or permanent), are not accepted by literally ANY international body.

      The “right of return” per international law, relative to Israel/Palestine was clear in 1949 (not applied), but is ambiguous currently, to the point of injustice, rather than justice.

      The “right of return” to individuals that were alive and dispossessed at the time, for whatever cause, is clear. It is only the questions of multiple generations, intermarried descendants, from and to what jurisdiction, that are unclear. (But, that is most of what is claimed by militants as the “right of return”). By that definition, Abbas should have the right to return to reside in Safed, and be an Israeli citizen, if he chose.

      The flipside though also applies to Jewish pre-1948 residents in East Jerusalem, Gush Etzion bloc, and other smaller bloc/communities in the West Bank.

      I think of the right of return per international law to be the most strained assertion of law supporting Palestinian rights.

      2. Title – One principle of property rights is that title and leasehold rights must be in a state of perfection. The key consequence is that if title rights are perfected (by a “reasonable man” legal test, not by the assertions of mobs or electorates), then the defining word for that property right is “consented”, in contrast to “contested”.

      Title deficiencies remain. Even though the 49-51 knesset laws appropriating “abandoned” lands were legal within Israeli jurisdiction, they still are contested, the laws themselves, and the application of the laws.

      “Clear” title to land appropriated without equal due process allowed, remains false. The rights of succeeding generations of residents are not insignificant and must be incorporated into any remedy, but the assertion of rights to property remains, as does the right to adjudicate the rights before a color-blind justice system.

      The rights are individual, NOT collective, NOT national. And, to assert the specific rights does require evidence.

      In almost all cases, forced removal is considered an unconscionable, avoidable remedy, and compensation and complimentary remedies are usually applied.

      The determination to afford title, does convey a right to residence, so the title determinations are associated with the right of return.

      And, if land has not been subsequently built on, is vacant, then the right of heirs to reside on that land is implied.

      3. Sovereignty – Sovereignty in the modern world is determined on the basis of consent of the governed, plebiscite, election, one-person one-vote. By the democratic definition of sovereignty, there is no “historical” national right to any land. By the democratic liberal definition of sovereignty, the assertion of a national historical right to land, is actually a fascist assertion (or at least very reactionary), and grossly conflicts in principle and in application with democratic rights.

      Israel may be Jewish majority by election, not by decree. Borders may be adjusted to shrink the size of Israel if the demographic balance is threatened, to preserve an environ that is self-governed by those that Jews that desire to self-govern as Jews.

      Borders may not be expanded to incorporate Jewish minority residents outside of sovereign borders.

      The rule of law. The rule of legislation only, or of mob only, or even to deny the rights to equal due process to individuals or minorities, is not the rule of law.

      The significance of the rule of law that is independent of person, power, money, is that it protects all. And, at some point in our lives, will be experienced to.

      That status is SO much more desirable than the arbitrary nature of group privilege, that we should embrace and implement it so consistently that it is a primary rock that we stand on.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        You don’t know what you’re talking about. The armistice lines are not international borders. International law – the treaty between Israel and Jordan – says explicitly that they are not.

        Sovereignty is not predicated on consent of the governed or voting or anything of the sort. North Korea is recognized as a sovereign state just as much as Switzerland is.

        Reply to Comment
        • Johnboy

          “The armistice lines are not international borders. International law – the treaty between Israel and Jordan – says explicitly that they are not.”

          Except, of course, that the ink wasn’t even dry on that Armistice Agreement before Israel started insisting that EVERYTHING behind that line was now Israeli territory.

          And, of course, in 1993 the PLO gave a committment that they will accept that Israeli declaration of sovereignty UP TO the Green Line any final-status agreement

          Sooooo, pardon me for asking, but if they both agree that the Green Line marks where The Sovereign Territory Of Israel Ends then what – exactly – do you think that Green Line represents?

          Chopped-liver, perhaps?

          Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Come on, Abbas said clearly that he had no right to return to his birthplace, then he back-pedaled. He’s a politician. I’m not discounting it, just seeing it for what it was: a gaffe or, at best, a trial balloon sent mostly to his own people.

        What if he had said it in Arabic, though, and stood by it? What would Peres/Livni/Olmert do? Sign a peace treaty between the State of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas?

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          This was meant as a response to the article, not to Richard Witty’s comment.

          Reply to Comment
        • sh

          He did not back-pedal. He always did say the right to return must be respected, and this time he said it will happen within the borders of the state of Palestine. And to illustrate, he said that although he was born in Safed, he knew he would not be going back there to live.

          I thought Limor Livnat and various other MKs were both disgusting and crashingly boring. We’ve been hearing this trope about saying one thing in Arabic and the other in English applied to various Arab personalities for about 40 years now. Nothing new under the sun. Basta ya!

          Reply to Comment
          • Aaron Gross

            You’ve been hearing the trope about “one thing in English and another in Arabic” for decades because Palestinians have been doing that for decades. I’ve never seen anyone on the left seriously deny it.

            The argument is over whether they’re telling the truth in Arabic and lying in English, or vice versa. The right says that the English words are the lie, the left says the Arabic words are the lie (meant to appease their “extremist” base). But you can’t seriously deny the contradiction.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            I seriously deny the contradiction. Instead of saying this about everyone we don’t like from Arafat to Ahmadinejad maybe we shouldn’t take the public for fools and recognize that our politicians don’t necessarily say the same in Hebrew (home turf) as they do in English (foreign consumption) and probably neither do the Hungarians, the Turks, the Koreans… Armistices and peace treaties got signed notwithstanding even before the advent of instant internet translations introduced each and every one of us to the joys of linguistic nitpicking.

            As Leen says below, the right of return will never be solved until it’s faced, so shape up and face it we one day will, it’s just a matter of time.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            Ignoring the rule of law in the three spheres,

            1. International bodies of law (clarification of right of return as far as residence)
            2. Title
            3. Sovereignty

            is to commit to lawlessness. Aaron, you need to think about that, the significance of establishing a norm of color-blind equal due process.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Abbas may be a Quisling, but he’s no fool. He must have known the impact of that phrase. If it leads to another intifada, it will give Israel the pretext for another Cast Lead in the vacuum between US presidents. This is the most dangerous time of the year.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      “Hopefully, Olmert and Livni will run in the Israeli elections on this issue and remind the public that we still actually do have a problem with the Palestinians.”
      You know the Israeli left has hit rock bottom when it pins whatever remains of its hope on Olmert and Livni. If memory serves me, these two “leftists” managed, in a short 3-year term in office, to create two devastating wars that killed thousands of innocent people, and solved absolutely nothing. In addition, Wikileaks gave us details from the Annapolis negotiations which clearly exposed both Livni and Olmert’s extreme, hardline, right-wing positions on everything from Jerusalem to settlements. If these are the left’s “messiahs”, then perhaps there is no hope at all.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        You are distorting facts again – second Lebanese war was unleashed due to kidnapping of two IDF soldiers by Hizbullah fighters.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          Did that war solve anything for Israel? If anything, it exposed to the entire world how weak and stupid its leaders are. Olmert was a disgrace of a prime minister, and, if given the choice, I would choose Netanyahu instead of him any day of the week!

          Reply to Comment
          • Mitchell Cohen

            Danny, this might be the fist thing you have posted that I agree with you on. From my perspective, if I had a choice of voting Meretz or Olmert as PM, I would vote Meretz….

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            The war was not initiated by Israel and therefore was not supposed to bring any obvious benefits.

            One can’t solely blame Jerusalem Thief for all faults anyway.

            Having no strong military background he had to rely on that dumbass from Avoda as Minister of Defence (laughable really) and on another idiot from the Airforces who happened to be the Chief of Staff at the time and was caught selling own bonds at first hours of the conflict.

            Actually what they did not do is let Hizbullah go away with it.

            I’m not sure who was responsible for delay in infantry deployment, which was the main cause to the lack of viable outcome. From the very beginning it was clear that Israel has only very limited time before Lebanese casualties rich 1000 civilians so what IDF needed to do is either pull back within first few hours or immediately begin preparations full-scale assault.

            From what I remember the Chief in Staff insisted that military goals could be achieved by the Airforce only, which isn’t truth of course.

            Only infantry is capable of achieving all and any military goals, all the rest – tanks, planes, artillery – are brought to support infantry, not to replace it.

            Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Strangely everyone has forgotten that Lieberman has the 2SS in his party program and it is precisely what they are going to do with Netaniyaho.

        I only hope that these peace prizes will be final for the region.

        Reply to Comment
    5. “right to see” could mean free travel within Israel. “not my right to live there” means, clearly, no recurssion to pre-Independence property rights (which is obviously going to be the case). Return cannot be implemented remotely ideally and all know that; in fact, I doubt the West Bank itself would be neither willing nor able to accept all in the outside refugee camps. False hope has been part of political identity for generations; yet some of that false hope lead to Rabin, and his death.

      Israeli property law must honor its Declaration of Independence neutrality with respect to race as applied: that is, Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli citizens should have equal access, given ability to pay, for all offered property rights; this is obviously not the case now. I know “ability to pay” is going to restrict Arab purchase, but one must start somewhere and, frankly, there is nowhere else to go which honors the Declaration.

      The point of this step is that a refugee right of return could then be extended to such of these able to pay for property rights, again under market competition. I know this is laugable for the vast majority; yet some in the Palestinian Diaspora have the resources, and might create a fund for others. Even this, however, will cause perhaps most present Israelis to howl. Yet it saves the principle of return in ironically a neo-liberal sense; and it begins to active the Declaration. Another utopian solution, but one which leaves most in their hell.

      Abbas is quite perhaps near his political end. I think he may be trying to enlarge the specturm of quasi-realistic possiblities in his exit. Gazans have no reason to listen to him under their continual denial of free labor livelihood. But idea shifts have to begin somewhere, somehow.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        Claims for damages or reparations for property lost should not be forgotten. That is surely a prime reason for Palestinian insistence on keeping the right of return on the table (as well why Israel intends to try to cancel it out by claiming for same from the Arab countries that expelled their Jews).

        Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      The Palestinians will NEVER agree to a “Right of Return” that sends the Palestinians refugees to the West Bank. They are aliens there, they have no roots in the place, the local population would resent the introduction of people who would then be in a position to wrest power from those who have it there from before. That is why the Palestinians MUST insist on a full RoR to the territory within the pre-67 lines of Israel.
      The Left continues to pretend that the RoR is merely designed to deal with a humanitarian problem…that is, where to have the refugees settlem down permanently. This is incorrect. It is a political weapon whose continued existence is used to delegitimize Israel entirely and that is why they can’t give up their demand for it.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Which is precisely why IMO Lieberman seeks to create Palestinian state in WB and Gaza ASAP.

        In this matter interests of refugees contradict interests of population of WB and Gaza – latter could have own state already while former would have no benefit from it.

        Palestinian refugees won’t be allowed inside Israel ever, so another solution is going to be applied.
        Probably some compensation program.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Leen

      Every conflict resolution has to solve the root cause of the problem. The dispossession and ethnic cleansing of 80% Palestinians is one of them. THerefore there will never be a positive peace if the right of return is not solved.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser


        1 – About one half of Arab population of Palestine was cleansed.
        2 – Dispossession and ethnic cleansing obviously are not roots of the conflict – hardly Hebron Jews dispossessed or cleansed someone back in 1929.

        Returning refugees inside Israel won’t resolve conflict, you really should concentrate of something which has at least potential benefit.

        For example, you could help preventing Palestinian children from throwing stones in speeding vehicles.

        Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          1. Ethnic cleansing – a policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to purposely remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas

          So you are saying the massacre of Deir Yassin and Plan Dalet are not methods of ethnic cleansing? Over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed, 800,000 Palestinians out of 1 million were either massacred, forced to flee, or even were internally displaced. THis constitutes 80%.
          2. No, but conflict resolution lies at the heart of solving ‘deep rooted’ problems. Whatever it may be, be it dispossession, inequality, discrimination, etc. Since I do believe the dispossession, land grabbing, theft, and inequality have all contributed to the conflict. Therefore if all of these issues are not resolved, there is no way either side will ever have a long-lasting peace, ‘positive peace’. THis is what is called a ‘negative peace’ in conflict resolution, meaning it is short term, with high possibilities that it will turn into another conflict again.

          I never suggested what the solution was, I said that there will never be any peace if the right of return is not solved. Any if one Palestinian decides to relinquish his right, that’s his decision, but he does not speak for all Palestinian refugees.

          As for your sarky remark at the end, if you want Palestinian children to stop hitting stones at cars, maybe you should look at the Jewish kids torching Arab taxis in Jerusalem, just a thought.
          THese aren’t the ‘deep-rooted’ causes of the conflict, again these are the consequences of not solving these ‘deep-rooted’ cause. I am guessing you have neither engaged in IR academia or conflict resolution/management/reconciliation for that matter.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            1 – about 700 000 out of 1 300 000 Arabs were cleansed which gives us just a tiny bit above 50%

            2 – The deepest rooted problem of this conflict is Arab’s hatred towards Jews – there was no land grab and dispossession until 1948 yet it did not stopped Arabs from massacring Jews.

            It is laughable, by the way, to hear Arabs complaining that they are not equal to Jews.
            Of course they are not. Never were.
            On what basis a dhimmi could be equal to a Faithful?

            IR? G-d forbid.

            Is it in that academy you’ve learned to present consequences as reasons?

            Palestinian kids are throwing stones for at least 25 years more than Jewish kids are torching taxis.

            p.s. Palestinian refugees have no legal right to return.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            1- Where do you get your statistics from?

            2- Give me a break. Before the establishment of Israel, many of the Palestinian families in Palestine intermarried with other Jews. How do I know this? Because I know quite a lot of Palestinian families who have a jewish grandfather/grandmother/relative here and there. Ask any of the older generation Palestinians and they will tell you it was normal especially in cities.

            And yes there was land grabbing and disposession with the help of British imperialism. Why do you think the Arab revolt occured in 1930? why do you think the British introduced White Paper of 1939? Why do you think Woodrow Wilson was lamenting back in 1920 that immigration of Jews from Europe was going to cause a lot of problems for the native population? WHy do you think FD Roosevelt insisted that the native population were taken into account with the jewish immigration? Everyone saw it coming, the immigration, influx and dispossession of the native population was a recipe for disaster and was going to cause many problems for unprecedent amount of time. If these root problems are addressed, the conflict will continue.

            Yeah and I guess when a population is oppressed rises up its admirable (see Easter Uprising of Ireland, South Africa, Civil Rights Movement, Algeria uprising against French colonialism) but god forbid a Palestinian rises against oppression, because then it’s considered ‘hatred’.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            It’s hard to find correct figures these days. Arabs are claiming that 80-90%% were cleansed; some Jews claim that it was mere 5%-10%.

            If I remember well British census conducted circa 1947 counted about 2 000 000 people living in Palestine, of which about 70% were Arabs.

            Here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_refugee
            According to that Wiki page 700 000 includes those displaced into current WB and Gaza territory, which further decreases number of people who were forced to leave Palestine altogether.

            Sorry, but I won’t give you a break.
            1 – Jews could not intermarry with Palestinians because there is no such people.

            To be exact today’s “Palestinian” equals pre-1948 “Palestinian Arab” accordingly to the Palestinian Charter definitions.

            At most Palestinian Jews could intermarry with Palestinian Arabs, which is problematic again because a Jew can not marry not by Jewish tradition with hupa and Rebbe. It is even more unthinkable that a Muslim could marry to a dhimmi, so it’s either Jew were converted to Islam and therefore stopped being Jew or Palestinian Arab were converted to Judaism which is highly unlikely.

            Events you mentioned have really nothing to do with Arab hostility towards Jews.

            Palestinian and other Arabs, as well as other Muslims raised against Jewish “oppression” numerous times long before Herzl was born.

            Insinuations that the conflict is caused by creation of the Jewish state in part of Palestine are nothing but attempts to draw attention from the root cause.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Taking responsibility for what one has done and apologizing for it comes first. All the rest follows on from there.

            I see.
            Since there was no apology from Arab side for few pre-Zionist massacres, oppression, expulsions, etc., it’s obvious that Arabs are not sorry for that.
            Jolly good.

            p.s. one doctor is not representative for entire nation.

            p.p.s Tell me Sh, are you on purpose looking for the most irrelevant examples/analogies/explanations?

            Reply to Comment
    8. Click here to load previous comments

The stories that matter.
The missing context.
All in one weekly email.

Subscribe to +972's newsletter