Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Common Sense on the Palestinian “Refugee” Issue

by Elliott Abrams
November 7, 2012


In my last post I noted that PLO chairman Abbas had made, and then withdrawn, a sensible statement about Palestinian “refugees.”  To recap, at first Abbas said he saw Palestine as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and added that while he would like to visit the city of his birth, Safed, which is now in Israel, he had no right to live there. When criticized he retracted these comments, saying “The right of return is holy and no one can deny it,” later adding that he had only meant that he personally would not return to Safed. “What I said about Safed was my own personal position, and it did not mean giving up the right of return. No one can give up the right of return,” Abbas said.

In fact common sense about this issue has been almost entirely absent among Palestinian leaders, and more widely among Arab states. For this reason an editorial in The National, the English-language newspaper in the UAE, bears reading. Here is an excerpt:

[Abbas’s] comment struck many observers as the diplomatic equivalent of waving a white flag. A failure of leadership, some Palestinians claimed. Traitor, others called him. Yet no one, as far as we can tell, has yet offered a more appropriate label for the comment: realistic.

Mr Abbas no doubt underestimated, astonishing though this seems, the passions Palestinians hold for their ancestral homeland. But if the Palestinians’ goal is an independent state – a position they will soon be advocating again at the UN – then the only way forward will be through hard, painful compromise.

Mr Abbas unintentionally alienated some who support his policies; on Monday, as criticism mounted, he said he had been giving his personal view, not the view of his government or party.

Despite that, he may have succeeded in injecting the Palestinian issue into Israeli politics….In a dispute as deadlocked as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both realism and openness to calculated compromise are valuable traits, not liabilities, in political leadership.

Hats off to this display of realism in the Emirates–one that is all too rare in the Arab world. If peace is ever to come, Arab nations will have to back compromises to which the Palestinians agree. More editorials like this, in more Arab capitals, would greatly assist the ability of the Palestinian leadership to contemplate the kind of realistic compromises they may some day face.

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