x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Refugee issue must not cloud statehood bid

The right of return? What Mahmoud Abbas said upset a lot of people, but to others he simply spoke realistically.

On Israeli television last weekend, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he is unlikely to ever live in Safed, his childhood home, now firmly inside Israel.

His 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.

In an interview with Channel 2, Mr Abbas said in English that "Palestine now for me is '67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever ... This is Palestine for me." While he would like to visit his childhood home of Safed, he went on to say, he would not live there.

Condemnation was swift. Protesters torched Mr Abbas's image in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas denounced his words as "extremely dangerous". Even more dangerous, from Mr Abbas's perspective, was that some of the strongest words of support came from an Israeli politician, President Shimon Peres.

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.

Refugee issues have long been one of the areas open to discussion between Israel and the Palestinians (the sides have even traded numbers on how many exiled Palestinians would be allowed to return). Yet such discussions have always been predicated on 1967 borders, and Mr Abbas' comments on his homeland do not shift this reality one iota.

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. Mr Peres, for one, is seen as a potential challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Talks on a peace plan have long been stalled by Israel's hard-line government.

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.