The Palestinian president told hundreds of young Israeli activists on Sunday that he does not want to “drown” Israel with Palestinian refugees, in his most conciliatory comments to date on one of the thorniest issues in Mideast peace talks.
The statements by President Mahmoud Abbas suggested new flexibility on the “right of return,” the demand by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, and their descendants, to return to lost properties in the Jewish state.
Today, the refugees and their descendants are believed to number about 5 million people. In Israel, there is broad consensus against accepting a large-scale resettling of these refugees in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, saying it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel, a country of just 8 million people. Israeli officials believe the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state or offered some sort of compensation.
But speaking to some 300 young Israelis who visited his West Bank headquarters, Abbas said he is seeking a “creative solution” for the refugees, suggesting he is not demanding a blanket right of return.
“Refugees should be satisfied and all parties should be satisfied,” said Abbas. “You will be satisfied and we will be satisfied.”
The fate of the refugees is one of the most emotional issues in the conflict. In Palestinian society, there is an overwhelming demand for refugees to be able to return home. Abbas himself is a refugee from what is now Safed in northern Israel, though he has said publicly he has no intention of seeking to live there. Israeli leaders have long demanded that the Palestinian leadership publicly renounce the right of return. The refugee issue is one of the Palestinians most important cards in the peace talks, and something that is unlikely to be addressed until the final stage of negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been brokering talks since last July, hopes to return to the region in the coming weeks with the outlines of a final deal. He has set an April target date for a preliminary agreement, with the goal of finalizing the deal in continued talks after that. However, there have been no public signs of progress.
By hosting the Israeli delegation, Abbas was attempting to reach out to the Israeli public, where skepticism about reaching a peace deal remains high.
The Israeli group, mostly university students and young activists in dovish political parties, was the largest group of Israelis ever to meet with Abbas in his compound in the West Bank.
Israeli Labor party lawmaker Hilik Bar, who heads a parliamentary caucus in favor of Israeli-Palestinian peace, called the event “unprecedented.”
Abbas addressed a list of oft-repeated Israeli concerns about the Palestinians. He acknowledged there is some incitement against Israel in Palestinian school textbooks, but said Israel refused his offer to set up a joint committee to address incitement in both societies. He also refuted claims that he denies the Holocaust, saying “I know millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”
Abbas said he wishes to set up a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem alongside an Israeli capital there, while keeping Jerusalem as one undivided city.
“What is the problem with that? This is coexistence,” Abbas said.
Many Israeli participants called their visit to Abbas’ presidential compound “surreal.” Israelis are generally prohibited from visiting Palestinian areas in the West Bank.