Prof. Efraim InbarThe author is Professor in Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
A little-noticed Reuters story on January 10, 2013, reports that Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), rejected a conditional Israeli offer to let Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria resettle in the "West Bank" and Gaza. Abbas rejected Israel’s offer because he thought it would compromise the claims of these refugees to return to their homes in Israel lost during the 1948 war. According to this report, Israel agreed to the resettlement on the condition the refugees sign a statement relinquishing claims of return to Israel. Yet Abbas rejected this condition and said “it is better they die in Syria than give up their right of return.”
Instead of helping his people in distress, Abbas prefers to cling to “the right of return” – a demand that no Israeli government will ever accept. Palestinian leaders have for years rejected attempts to alleviate the condition of their refugees by resettling them in proper housing in Gaza and Judea and Samaria , instead preferring to keep the refugees and millions of their descendants in shanty towns and camps, as political pawns in the struggle against Israel. These refugees constitute an important element in the Palestinian self-image of victimhood and martyrdom.
Most of the international community rejects this Palestinian Arab demand, understanding that a mass influx could destroy Israel’s Jewish character, and that this is a deal-breaker issue. No Israeli-Palestinian peace can develop if the PA insists on the“right” of return. Yet nobody in the international community spoke out against Abbas’ obstinate and radical refusal to take up Israel’s offer to resettle Syrian refugees in the "West Bank" and Gaza.
The Palestinian Arab leadership missed another opportunity to demonstrate that it can behave in a constructive fashion and be of help to its people. Instead of pragmatic politics, we once again see Palestinian Arab adherence to radical goals that prolongs their own suffering and produces obstacles to peace.
Another recent display of this typical Palestinian Arab preference for intransigence was provided by the so-called“moderate” Abbas when he addressed his countrymen on a Fatah movement anniversary on January 4, 2013. Abbas avoided mentioning the land-for-peace formula or the establishment of a Palestinian state beside Israel that could bring an end to the conflict and the suffering of his people. He did not prepare his people for the need to make concessions for the sake of peace. Instead, Abbas stressed the perennial need to adhere to the path of armed struggle in order to realize “the dream of return” of the Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants.
The only explanation for this behavior is that the Palestinian Arab national movement is very serious about the “right of return.” Despite attempts of pundits who suggest that goodwill and Israeli territorial concessions can bring about flexibility on this issue, there is no evidence that the PA is ready to put aside its long-term goal of “return.”
Dismissing Palestinian behavior and rhetoric, or belittling its importance with regard to the refugees, amounts to ostrich-type behavior of sticking one’s head in the sand. The international community, either due to naïveté or wishful thinking, has never recognized that so long as Palestinians insist that refugees have a right to settle in Israel, they are not prepared for meaningful negotiations nor will Israelis believe that they are. People do not easily give up their dreams, and over the past twenty years since the Oslo accords were signed, the PA has not moderated its demands one bit.
The insistence on a “right of return” complements Abbas’ refusal to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state and his denial of any links of the Jews to their ancestral homeland. Moreover, Abbas is conducting a campaign at home and abroad to demonize Israel and to portray Israelis as colonialists and war criminals. These acts do not indicate moderation or a quest for coexistence with Israel.
Abbas is also taking measures to encourage armed struggle against Israel, even if these measures undermine the state-building efforts of the PA. He supported several December 2012 parades of armed members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the militia of Fatah, in honor of the anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement. Tolerant attitudes toward Palestinian militias run counter to the main litmus test of a state, which is the monopoly over the use of force. Turning a blind eye to the reemergence of armed groups in Palestinian society erodes the main achievement of the PA in recent years – the restoration of law and order, following the formal dismantlement of militias.
The Palestinian Arab armed groups may be tempted to engage in violent clashes with Israel, which will turn out to be disastrous for their self-determination and peaceful coexistence. While declaring his preference for non-violence, Israeli leaders suspect that Abbas is hoping that a third Intifada will bring better results than the second.
Abbas promised negotiations and moderation after the winning by “Palestine” of an upgraded status at the UN as an “observer state.” However, since that November 2012 vote, Abbas has only ramped up his inflammatory rhetoric and irresponsible policies.
The Palestinian Arabs continue to be in urgent need of better political leadership to extricate themselves from pathological patterns of self-destructive behavior.