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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Revealing Abbas

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians, Peace Process, U.S. Policy
Publication: Dore Gold Articles


Abu Mazen may have been applauded within the halls of the U.N. General Assembly after his speech on September 23. But outside of the U.N., his speech was criticized, including by leading figures in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. For example, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, provided commentary on CNN and said that Abbas’ speech was “harsh” and “very disappointing.” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the powerful chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives more bluntly stated that Abu Mazen’s speech demonstrated that “the Palestinian leadership is not a partner for peace.”

Abu Mazen had been assumed by many governments in the West to be one of the most moderate Palestinian leaders. This had been a common belief in Israel as well. During the 1990’s, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would often first turn to Abu Mazen with a diplomatic proposal and then get him to convince Yasser Arafat to accept it. This background contributed to the impression that Abu Mazen was extremely flexible and Israel could easily reach a deal with him. However, at Camp David in July 2000, Abu Mazen was actually tougher than Arafat on the issue of refugees. Indeed, a careful examination of Abu Mazen’s statements just before he went to the U.N. and the positions he voiced in his speech indicate that he was not prepared to reach a historic compromise with Israel, as many had previously thought. 

First, Abu Mazen’s position on Palestinian refugees was completely uncompromising. Israeli veterans of past negotiations with the Palestinians assumed that an arrangement could be reached whereby the Palestinian refugees would not enter Israel under any circumstances, or at least Israel would have a veto that could prevent them from coming into Israeli territory. If the Palestinians claimed a “right of return,” Israeli negotiators in the past assumed, they would have to exercise it in the Palestinian state that they were going to establish.

However, when Abu Mazen spoke in Ramallah on August 27, 2011, in an address that was broadcast on Palestinian television, he went through a number of positions he said that he is frequently confronted with by international negotiators, including statements like “the refugee problem will be solved in the Palestinian state.” Abu Mazen was crystal clear in rejecting this idea: “We will never accept these sayings.”

So where would the Palestinian refugees go? Abu Mazen’s current ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, explained two weeks ago in The Daily Star that the refugees would not become citizens of the future Palestinian state, for “statehood would not affect the right of return.” Clearly, the Palestinian ambassador meant that the PLO would insist “the right of return” will be demanded into Israel itself. During his U.N. speech Abu Mazen clarified that the numbers were not insignificant, for he spoke about the “the plight of millions of Palestine refugees.”

Abu Mazen also showed little flexibility on the issue of territory. Before going to the U.N., he stated on Aug. 27, “when you say there are settlement blocs as an existing fact … we will never accept these sayings.” At the U.N. he called for the body to accept a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines as a member.

A week after Abbas spoke, his close associate on the Fatah Central Committee, Abbas Zaki, appeared on the Al-Jazeera satellite and gave his interpretation of Abu Mazen’s U.N. speech: “When we say the borders should be based upon these borders, President [Abbas] understands, if Israel withdraws from Jerusalem, evacuates 650,000 settlers, and dismantles the wall — what will become of Israel? It will come to an end.”

It should have come as no surprise that given these positions, Abu Mazen would not even consider the Israeli demand that right of the Jewish people to their nation-state be recognized. At the U.N. he went a step further in this rejection, for he spoke about the “Holy Land” in only a Muslim and Christian context. There was no historical Jewish connection according to his narrative.

What emerges from all this is that there are real limitations about how far negotiations can go with Abu Mazen. Diplomacy remains an important tool in order to probe whether there is a gap between his rhetoric and his real positions, though public statements are generally more significant than whatever is said in private. Nevertheless, international expectations about Abu Mazen need to be radically adjusted. He may be willing to reach limited understandings with Israel but looking at all his statements in September, he is hardly ready to reach a final arrangement and put an end to the conflict.