Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

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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Abbas and the “Right of Return” Will Defeat John Kerry

by Elliott Abrams
March 13, 2014


When the Kerry negotiations fail to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, many observers in Europe and even some in the United States will attribute the disappointment to Israel and especially to “Israel’s right wing government” under Prime Minister Netanyahu.

One can reach that conclusion only by ignoring many statements being made and positions being taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The most recent remarks were made to young Fatah activists on March 6th and available at the MEMRI web site. Abbas’s subject was the “refugee” issue and the “right of return.” Here is an excerpt of what he said:

Every Palestinian, from Canada to Japan – that includes the Palestinians living abroad as well – will have to agree on the proposal. They will vote in favor or against. If they say “no,” the proposal will not pass.…The Right of Return is a personal right. If you are a refugee, your son is a refugee as well. Perhaps you will decide to relinquish this right while your son decides not to, or vice versa. Your son is free to do so. When we say that this is a personal choice, it means that he can decide for himself. We will all be making a choice: One option is to remain where we are – in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon, and so on – and receive compensation…Of course…The second option is to go to another country, as part of an agreement. If someone wants to emigrate to Canada, he is free to do so. Wherever one goes, one remains a Palestinian. In this case, he will receive compensation as well. The third option is to decide to return to the Palestinian state, and to receive compensation. He can also decide to return to the State of Israel. In such a case, he will receive compensation and return….All the refugees who number 5 million today, along with their offspring, are considered 1948 refugees. There are no refugees who came from Nablus or Ramallah. They are all from Tiberius, Safed, Acre, Nazareth, Jaffa, Beersheba, and so on.

This is a remarkable statement and it pretty much kills the chances for a peace deal. Here’s why:

In any real negotiation, Israel and the PLO will need to make compromises and it’s obvious that the PLO will have to abandon the idea that five million Palestinians have the right to move to Israel. No Israeli government will ever sign a deal that would leave Israel a majority Arab country. As President Bush put it in 2004, “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

By making the “right of return” a personal right for each Palestinian, Abbas is saying the PLO has no right to negotiate over it and no right to sign a agreement that defeats or even limits that “right.” If that’s really the PLO position, there will never be an agreement.

Second, if Abbas doesn’t really mean it, he is narrowing his own negotiating room to near zero and obviously not preparing his on people for the compromises peace will entail.

Third, his definition of “refugee” is as broad as it could possibly be. According to Abbas, a Palestinian who left Israel in 1948 or 1967 has the right to move to Israel or to decline, but his “no” does not even bind his own foreign-born children. His son, and presumably grandson, who have never set foot in Israel and may well have citizenship in (for example) Canada have their own separate rights to move to Israel. Five million separate choices, says Abbas.

Fourth, Abbas has every one of those people receiving compensation. Those who move to Palestine get compensation; those who “return” to Israel get compensation; those who move to Canada or stay in Canada get compensation, and so on. So, the young man or woman born in Jordan or Canada and having full citizenship there, and staying there, gets compensation. It’s a nice fantasy for a politician to describe—every Palestinian takes part in this bonanza—but it is just that: a fantasy. Once again, it has nothing to do with actually making the choices peace will require nor with preparing Palestinians for the real future.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with having a referendum on a major national choice. The Swiss do it all the time, the UK may hold one on the EU, the Scots will have one on staying in the UK, and the Palestinians and Israelis may have referenda on any peace deal. The question is who gets to vote, and Abbas wants not only those living in the West Bank and Gaza and eligible to vote in Palestinian Authority elections to have that right, but “every Palestinian, from Canada to Japan.” He says there are five million refugees. When he was elected president in 2005, there were 800,000 voters and that was considered a two-thirds turnout, suggesting 1.2 million eligible voters. That means nearly four million Palestinians not living in the West Bank or Gaza would be eligible, according to Abbas, or perhaps a smaller number when people too young to vote are subtracted—but still several times more than the voters living in what will become Palestine.

It is obvious that a peace deal of remarkable balance and generosity in many and varied ways, but not granting the “right of return” that Abbas says belongs to every single Palestinian “refugee,” might well be rejected by Palestinians now in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. They have just been told, now in 2014 in the middle of peace negotiations, that Abbas will get them the right to move to Israel , and also been told that everyone will be getting compensation. If the final deal does not give them the ability to move to Israel, or they don’t think the compensation is adequate, they may well  vote no.

So Abbas’s maneuver here, as we approach the Kerry deadline in April, makes a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible. The terms he has just set forth will never be met. Rather than preparing for peace, he is not only making it impossible for himself to sign a deal, but also setting out terms that will make it impossible for his successors  to sign a deal.


Post a Comment 16 Comments

  • Posted by Nathan

    As always, I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Abrams’ analysis. But being right doesn’t help. The talks will fail and Israel will once again be blamed, because that is what most of the players prefer. A case in point has just made this fact perfectly clear. All talk of a possible framework that the administration would introduce has included the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. Since the Arab League and Abbas have stuck to their guns on rejecting this possibility, the Obama administration instead seems to be bailing them out, with Kerry telling Congress that Israel’s insistence on recognition is an unnecessary mistake. The goalposts just keep getting moved to make Netanyahu the spoiler, and a way will be found with the refugee issue as well.
    Being right is nice, but we who support Israel must find a way to assert that right and shame those who would pressure Israel out of a sense that it’s the easier stone to push over.

  • Posted by Sheila Novitz

    This is just plain frightening. Particularly the part where, of course, Europe and the USA will blame Israel for failure of the “peace” talks, because they’re too afraid of Muslims to tell the truth about where the responsibility for failure actually lies. The longer I live, the more afraid I become of these barbaric, intransigent, hostile, demanding, 7th century (when it suits them) Islamists who believe that somehow the world owes them everything, including “compensation” for the wars they started against Israel, for the terrible damage they’ve inflicted on the Jewish people and the Middle East’s only democracy. It is interesting that all the world sees and recognizes Muslim/Arab behaviour for what it is – violent, murderous, greedy, corrupt – but not when it comes to Israel. In Israel, the Jewish country, the world tells us Arabs are innocent, but we are guilty. And this is not anti-Semitism?

  • Posted by EMT

    President Obama, John Kerry, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians are dreaming. The world will turn over, and Israel will not budge. In all the wars between Israel and the Arabs, Israel was always able to turn the situation in its favor. I don’t think that the Arabs are prepared for or want another war.

  • Posted by Jeff Saperstein

    Fear and mistrust seem to be the most valued currency in the Middle East since everyone uses it for their own purposes. Abbas can make whatever claims he may wish in public. He may even walk from a framework deal. However, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have others who are pressuring them. Public statements have always belied private conversation and understandings. The US, EU, Jordan, the Saudis and Emirates are serious players in this game. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have played to their bases while secretly agreeing to conditions that they do not publicly proclaim. Wikileaks showed the Palestinians moved far more in private than they ever let on in public with Olmert.

    The deal will be public and the cards will be open shortly. The Israelis will hold their government accountable in any deal. Abbas may be unwilling to go as far as he needs to, but we will know soon enough.

  • Posted by Aziz

    Realty on the ground is entirely different from politics. The reality is ISreal state does and will remain on the Palestinian ground.so why do they insist on something which is a deal breaker.
    ISreal has and will continue have the ultimate power in the Middle East so they should think about the future of the next generations instead on just politic gains.
    People can always live in peace and self adjust but politicans always think of self gains.
    Instead of putting pressure on one side ! The plestinan and Israeli peoples should apply sever pressure on thier governments to get a deal done once for all.

  • Posted by Phil Cohen

    Though old news, it’s always been a mystery to me as to why the Palestinian refugee situation is virtually the only refugee problem left to fester. I am not certain how a Palestinian living as a citizen in Jordan or MIchigan, now citizens and getting on with their lives, feels about the issue of the right of return to within the Green Line.

    But clearly the Palestinian leadership is of a mind that that person in Dearborn ought at least get compensation for having been displaced in 1948. This boggles the mind.

    Presumably, all of the descendants of the Jews pushed out of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and so forth will be similarly compensated by their respective former countries.

  • Posted by rulierose

    there wasn’t ever going to be a peace deal anyway, because the Palestinians don’t want peace. if they did, they wouldn’t be trying to kill as many Jews as possible.

    as for the “right of return” and “reparations,” tell you what: as soon as the descendants of the 800,000 displaced JEWS get their land back in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc., then the “Palestinians” can have “their” land back, ok?

  • Posted by bataween

    I take a slightly different view: yes there are 870,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands and millions more if you include their descendants. They CAN’T exercise ‘a right of return’ to Arab countries because they will not survive for long if they do. So here’s the deal: the Jewish refugees forfeit any right of return and so the Palestinian refugees do too.
    Cpmpensation is another matter: both sets may claim compensation for their losses.

  • Posted by Larry Snider

    Palestinian President Abbas has said many things over time as has Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Pushing the extreme through right of return language or settlement construction language seems to unfortunately go with the distance between the two sides. It does not however represent the terms that will be forwarded by the United States in its Framework or what will be rejected, reconstructed and resolved as both sides move forward with their well defined reservations.

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    No one can inherit the status of refugee. If they could then the millions of people (today billions) made refugees by WW2 (1945) have the right to return to Germany, Italy and Japan and ask for compensation. In 1948, Palestinians were displaced by a war they started. They expected the other Arabs to help, but for some Arab nations, the 1948 war was a land grab from both the Arab and the Jewish Palestinians (now Israelis).

    Israel owes the Palestinians nothing, but has offered monetary compensation for the war the Arabs started and has offered the West Bank and Gaza to the Arab Palestinian for a homeland. This land did not belong to the Arab Palestinians; Israel won it from Egypt and Jordan. Israel has even offered to allow a small number of “refugees” the ability to move to Israel.

    Abbas doesn’t want peace. The longer he waits, the more nonsense the West agrees to.

  • Posted by Beatrix139


    There are ½ billion Arabs, Turks and Persians and 6 million Jews. All the wars were started by the Arabs and they won’t stop until the Jews capitulate and accept their dhimmitude. Muslims believe they’ve replaced the Jews and Christians and that’s why they think Israel belongs to them. T

  • Posted by Dan

    This idiotic game will never end until Israel calls it quits and walks away from the table.

  • Posted by Allan

    I think it is quite noble that Mr. Abbas would like to embrace global palestinian democracy in an effort to support his peace initiative with Israel. Hopefully before sending out the ballots worldwide, Mr. Abbas will call the long overdue election in the P.A. territory to determine his authority.

  • Posted by Al Neuman

    So i guess if Abbas were to be taken seriously, then all the Jews who have been expelled or left Arab lands under duress would have the “right of return”?

  • Posted by ah

    Yes Beatrix, because it was the “Arabs” who started the 1967 war… and “Arabs” who invaded Lebanon in 1982 and the “Arabs” who bombed the King David hotel in Jerusalem… oh wait.

  • Posted by ah

    Some reality checks for those on this board living in a Zionist fantasy world

    “While Mr. Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, the precipitating event, he said, was Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. That came three days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, and it undercut an emerging deal to extend the negotiations.”

    And history repeats itself, Israel intentionally destroying peace talks, and then blaming the Palestinians.


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