By ISRAEL HAYOM—
Following Channel 2 interview in which Abbas implies he would be willing to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return,” Israeli leaders warn that the Palestinian Authority president is trying to influence the coming Israeli elections.
It is only through direct peace negotiations that Israel would ever learn the true position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, responding to recent conflicting remarks made by the Palestinian leader in Ramallah.
Two days after Abbas implied in a Channel 2 interview that he would be willing to abandon the demand for a Palestinian “right of return” in exchange for peace with Israel, Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting: “I saw the interview with Abbas over the weekend. I heard that he has since rescinded his remarks, but this proves how important it is to hold direct negotiations without preconditions.”
“Only through direct negotiations can we find out what his real position is,” Netanyahu said. “In general I can say that if Abbas is really serious and if he intends to advance the peace process, as far as I am concerned we can sit together immediately. Jerusalem and Ramallah are seven minutes apart, and I can resume negotiations today. I want to take this opportunity to call on Abbas, again, to immediately return to the negotiating table without preconditions because peace can only be achieved around a negotiating table, not with unilateral decisions at the U.N. General Assembly. Such moves will only push peace further away and instigate instability.”
A statement issued earlier by the Prime Minister’s Office stated that there was “no correlation between Abbas’ remarks and his actions,” Israel Radio reported. The office insisted that Abbas had been refusing the offer to renew peace negotiations for four years despite a host of steps taken by Netanyahu to persuade him to resume talks, including an unprecedented moratorium on settlement construction.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu’s political partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, accused Abbas of trying to influence the coming Israeli elections in favor of the Left. The foreign minister also said that even if he wanted to, Abbas did not have the power to enforce any policy.
Speaking to Army Radio, Lieberman said, “Obviously, when Abbas gives an interview to Israeli television on the eve of the elections, sounding as innocent as a lamb, he is undoubtedly stepping in to help the Left — Shelly Yachimovich and Zahava Gal-On — his natural allies, who represent Palestinian issues.”
Lieberman also said that Abbas was sending conflicting messages to the Israeli public and to the Palestinian public.
“He said one thing on television in English, and immediately denied it in Arabic,” Lieberman said. “Obviously the man isn’t fighting for peace, but rather for his personal life. That is why he is lying to the Americans, to the Europeans, to his own people and to us. Obviously he doesn’t have the power to deliver the goods. He has lost control over the Palestinian street a long time ago.
“Clearly, if we go back to 1967 lines and divide Jerusalem, the people in power will say that he signed a deal without the authorization to do so, and that they don’t recognize any of the commitments in it. The same images we have grown accustomed to seeing in Gaza and in the south will be a matter of routine in Jerusalem and in central Israel.
“After the Schalit prisoner exchange he was talking about ethnic cleansing, land theft and theft of natural resources. He regarded those terrorists who were released in the prisoner deal, terrorists who had murdered Jews in cold blood, as heroes.”
Also speaking to Army Radio, Homefront Defense Minister Avi Dichter said Sunday, “Abbas told Al Hayat in Arabic that the Palestinian right of return is holy and can never be given up; nobody has the right to give it up. Abbas is trying to influence the Israeli elections by saying that he is willing to give up the right of return, but we need to be careful about this.”
Dichter added: “Abbas has not been to visit Gaza in over five years. We need to be very careful in negotiating with Abbas as just the representative of Judea and Samaria — we cannot be left with Gaza as our problem.”
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak also remarked on Abbas’ interview on Sunday, arguing that now that Abbas had voiced willingness to make concessions, Netanyahu could no longer claim that there was no partner.
“Abbas gave an important and courageous interview,” the defense minister told Army Radio on Sunday. “He is not joining Likud-Beytenu or a Zionist youth group anytime soon because he is a Palestinian leader, but you can’t claim that he is not a partner.” Barak added, “Abbas works for no one.”
President Shimon Peres also welcomed Abbas’ “courageous” remarks.
“These are significant words,” Peres said. “These positions stand exactly in line with those of Israel and with the clear majority of the population, which supports the solution of two states for two peoples. This is a brave and important public declaration in which makes clear that his aim for a state is only within the West Bank and Gaza, and not in the territory of the state of Israel. courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace.”
But Abbas’ words drew anger from some Palestinians because they were viewed as relinquishing a long-held Palestinian aspiration for the return of those who fled their homes during the fighting between Arab countries and Israel in the wake of the Jewish state’s 1948 independence.
Abbas’ remarks reflect a decades-old understanding among Palestinian officials that only a limited number of the refugees would ever be able to return to their original homes in Israel as part of a peace agreement. It was, however, the first time he has said so in public to an Israeli audience.
The refugee issue has been a big obstacle in peace talks. Israel views their entry as demographic suicide and expects refugees to be taken in by a future Palestinian state.
Abbas told the Israeli station that he viewed only the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a future Palestinian state.
Nimer Hammad, an adviser to Abbas, said the leader was simply being “realistic.”
“He knows he can’t bring back five-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees to Israel,” Hammad said. Palestinians consider refugees to include not only the original 700,000 from the 1948 war, but also their 4-5 million descendants.
The prime minister of Abbas’ rival government in Gaza condemned his remarks, voicing a view was shared by many Palestinians there. Some supporters from Abbas’ own party, Fatah, said they hoped he left power.
In the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya Saturday night, hundreds of Palestinians gathered to watch men burn posters of a suited, smiling Abbas.
They waved the green flags of Hamas, the terrorist Islamic group that seized Gaza five years ago after bloody street battles with forces loyal to Abbas. Others held up colorful posters with the word “traitor” emblazoned on photos of Abbas. One Hamas official shouted: “We have burned Abbas, this rotten picture.”
“My daughter asks me, does Abbas work for us, or for the Jews?” said Sahar al-Muqayid, 35. The woman, who wore the face veil of a devout Muslim, bought four of her six children to the protest.
By Gazan standards, the demonstration was small, as were protests that took place in other parts of the territory. Near the Jabaliya demonstration, dozens of families strolled around streets brightly lit by thudding generators on the balmy Saturday evening, ignoring the nearby protest.