Israel’s prime minister responded bitterly Monday to comments by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that six million Palestinian refugees, himself included, were waiting to “return” to Israel and that “we need to find creative solutions because we cannot close the door to those who wish to return.”
A spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of promoting “impossible fantasies” and taking “maximalist positions.” Israel has a population of just over 8 million, more than a fifth of whom are Arabs. Israeli governments have consistently rejected Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for millions of descendants of former Arab residents of what is today Israel, saying that the demand amounts to a bid to destroy Israel by demographic means and that a Palestinian state would have to absorb them in the same way that Israel absorbed Jewish refugees who were forced to leave countries across the Middle East and North Africa when Israel was founded.
“The Palestinian leadership does the Palestinian people no service when they cultivate impossible fantasies,” Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev told The Times of Israel on Monday. “It’s high time the Palestinian leadership abandon these sort of maximalist positions which make reaching a peace agreement more difficult.”
Netanyahu was briefed on Abbas’s interview and decided to respond by referencing the PA chief’s refugee demand in a speech he gave on Sunday, Regev indicated.
“Real peace will only come with leadership that demands from the Palestinians to accept the three pillars of peace,” Netanyahu said in a pre-recorded video message screened at the Saban Forum in Washington: “One, genuine mutual recognition; two, an end to all claims, including the right of return; and three, a long-term Israeli security presence. Now, I will never give up on this triangle of true peace.”
‘Israel aspires to a Jewish state, and ISIS aspires to an Islamic state, and here we are, suspended between Jewish extremism and Islamic extremism’
Abbas gave the unusually hard-hitting and revelatory interview on November 30 to the Egyptian daily Akhbar Al-Yawm. It was translated into English over the weekend by the Washington-based media watchdog MEMRI.
In the course of the interview, Abbas ruled out recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, implied a comparison between Israel and the Islamic State, said he never believed in the Arab Spring, and revealed that in his most recent meeting with Barack Obama, he disabused the US president of the notion that any part of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood could be considered moderate. He also said that then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton sought to enlist his help in persuading former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, warned that IS would likely rise in the West Bank, and reserved some of his harshest comments for Hamas, whose leaders he called “a bunch of liars.” He also said Hamas “begged me to declare a ceasefire with no reservations or conditions” to end the 50-day war this summer.
In his comments on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas was blunt: “We cannot recognize a Jewish state. We will stand against this enterprise, not out of obstinacy, but because it contradicts our interests,” he said. “The first to suffer from this law would be the 1.5 million Arabs who would no longer belong to Israel, due to their religion. The first to protest this law were the Druze…
“There is another reason,” he went on. “[Israel] will not allow the return of refugees. There are six million refugees who wish to return, and by the way, I am one of them. We need to find creative solutions because we cannot close the door to those who wish to return. Israel aspires to a Jewish state, and IS aspires to an Islamic state, and here we are, suspended between Jewish extremism and Islamic extremism. [IS leader] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will have an excuse to establish an Islamic state after the Jewish state law is approved. This is another matter from which we and everyone else suffer.”
Those comments seemed to represent a hardening of Abbas’s positions. In September 2012 he told Israel’s Channel 2 news that he did not feel he had the right to return to live in Safed, in northern Israel, where he was born. Abbas has also been quoted telling his own negotiators that he did not anticipate flooding Israel with refugees, although the PA’s formal position in peace talks with Israel was always to demand the “right of return.”
Israeli officials said Monday they did not believe Abbas had invoked the six million figure in an ostensible counterpoint to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, whose dimensions he has previously questioned. Rather, the officials said, Abbas was inflating the numbers of Palestinian refugees. Usually, the number given is 4-5 million, the officials said, but this is a function of the UN uniquely including descendants of the original refugees in its totals, meaning third- and fourth-generation Palestinians are thus formally considered by the UN to be refugees. If anything, the officials said, the six million figure might be invoked by Abbas as an ostensible counterpoint to the 6 million Jews currently living in Israel.
Abbas charged that members of the Netanyahu government “don’t believe in peace. You ask for peace, and they do not want it… Netanyahu said to me: ‘I want [Israel to be responsible for] security on the Jordanian border for 40 years.’ I pretended to have misheard him, and asked: ‘How many?!’ He said: ’40 years.’ I bid him farewell and said, ‘Let’s shake hands [in farewell].’ I left his home and said to him, ‘This is occupation. I haven’t seen him since…'”
Abbas said he accepted the principle of 1:1 land swaps to adjust the pre-1967 lines, but also demanded territory of equal significance. “For example, it is inappropriate for them to receive land in Jerusalem and give me [land] in the Negev [in exchange],” he said. He did not explain why he had failed to accept the far-reaching peace offer of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, which included provisions to divide Jerusalem and relinquish Israeli sovereignty at the Temple Mount in favor of a non-sovereign international trusteeship. “I negotiated with Olmert, who said: ‘Let us swap land, and you will receive 20 extra kilometers in addition to the West Bank’… but we did not [manage] to reach an agreement and he left,” said Abbas.
He said he would not accept any Israeli plan to redesignate current Israeli territory with lots of Arab residents as part of a new Palestine, an idea floated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. “Netanyahu once told me that it was an ‘idea from hell,’ from his perspective, for him to give me the [Galilee] Triangle and everything in it. [The Triangle] was occupied in 1949 and at that time it had 38,000 residents. Today, it probably has about 400,000 residents. I said: I will not take anyone. Forget it, because honestly, I will not allow, or force, any Arab to relinquish his Israeli citizenship.”
In this context, he also claimed to have rejected a suggestion that might have prevented the collapse of the peace talks last spring over the issue of Israel’s refusal to release Israeli Arab terrorist convicts. “You might be surprised, but this is important. As far as I’m concerned, this is sacred. For example, in the fourth round of the release of our Palestinian prisoners, 15 of the 30 are 1948 Arabs [Israeli Arabs]. They told me: ‘Take them to the West Bank and they will relinquish their citizenship.’ I told them: ‘This is impossible. They should return to their homes and retain their citizenship.’ As far as I’m concerned, Arabs remaining citizens of Israel is a sacred matter,” said Abbas.
Abbas insisted that, “I don’t want to destroy Israel and do not call for its destruction. We want to live with it in security and peace, but only after I receive my rights and you receive yours… We want a state in the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, and we want to [set] a date to end the occupation. That is all we want. If Israel agrees to this now, we will go to negotiations.”
He then set out the steps he would take in his efforts to achieve statehood if negotiations could not be restarted.
He acknowledged that his planned appeal to the UN Security Council for a timetable for Israel to leave the territory it captured in 1967 might not gain the necessary nine votes and would likely draw a US veto if it did. In any case, he said, it would not turn Palestine into a state. “All the [Security] Council does is give me a certificate; it doesn’t give me territory,” he said.
‘I never believed in the Arab Spring… Hillary Clinton phoned me and asked me to phone president Mubarak and persuade him to step down. I asked, What do I have to do with the Egyptian matter?’
But, he noted, “the General Assembly has decided that the PA territory is occupied territory, [so] now we are like any occupied country that is subject to the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Geneva Conventions. Therefore, we intend to participate in the conference of signatory countries in Geneva [in December] in order to implement this resolution.”
If that doesn’t work, he said, the PA would join various international organizations, “such as the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. There are 520 international organizations, and [joining them] will surely bother everyone. If there is an appeal to the ICC, and a Palestinian files a lawsuit against an Israeli, they [the Israelis] get scared, because [then] they are wanted and cannot travel.”
Finally, he warned the PA would cease security coordination with Israel — “no ties, no security, and no talks with anyone.” The PA would say “to Netanyahu: ‘You are an occupation state, please take responsibility for the occupation.’ Many comrades tell me: Authority is an achievement. But I am not giving away authority. I am merely saying that I have no authority and that I have nothing…”
Turning to the issues of Egypt and the Arab Spring, Abbas said that on his recent visits to the US and South Africa, “I clarified to everyone that Egypt had saved us and the entire region from the terrorism in the region… In my recent meeting with Obama, he asked me about the situation in Egypt, and I explained to him that the process of democratization [there] was about to be completed. He asked me about the Brothers [the Muslim Brotherhood], and I explained to him that there was no such thing as Brothers there. Obama clarified, ‘The moderate Brothers,’ and I explained to him that the moderate Brothers are only in the US, but that they [the Muslim Brotherhood] were the ones who had created all the extremist organizations in the region, including IS, the Al-Nusra Front, and al-Qaeda. All these terror organizations emerged from the belly of the Muslim Brotherhood. They will not return to [power in] Egypt again.”
‘Morsi did not understand the Palestinian problem. His understanding of the subject was like my understanding of Japanese’
“From the outset,” he went on, “I never believed in the Arab Spring. One day, before the January 25 revolution, I was with then-president Hosni Mubarak, and when the events of January 25 began, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton phoned me and asked me to phone president Mubarak and persuade him to step down. I asked, ‘What do I have to do with the Egyptian matter?’… We are facing chaos, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, or both.”
He said subsequent Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was himself ousted a year later, “did not understand the Palestinian problem. His understanding of the subject was like my understanding of Japanese. He wanted to exploit it to actualize the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood. If you remember the Giora Eiland [a former general and ex-Israeli national security adviser] plan, he wanted to turn the Sinai territories into the Palestinian state, [and Morsi agreed to this plan. But] we will not agree to accept an inch of land from Egypt and will not agree that a Palestinian should leave his land…[Moreover,] Morsi wanted to establish a Gaza consulate in Egypt to deepen the internal Palestinian schism.”
Abbas also warned: “If the current situation continues as it is now, IS will also emerge in the West Bank. As for the Gaza Strip – the entire Muslim Brotherhood is IS.”
On the current situation in Gaza, Abbas said he backed Egypt in destroying the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egyot border “once and for all. This has been my view for nine years, and I have asked Egypt many times to close the tunnels. In Gaza, 1,800 residents have become millionaires by utilizing the tunnels for their own interests. Likewise, they utilize the tunnels to act against Egypt by smuggling weapons and drugs, and [they also harm Egypt] by operating an industry of counterfeiting money and forging documents. The destruction of the tunnels is the answer that will put an end to these phenomena. I have many times proposed ideas for destroying the tunnels, for example, to flood them with water 30 meters deep – as deep as the tunnels. This should be done after destroying the homes with tunnel openings in them, and punishing the owners of those homes. No country in the world tolerates the problem of the tunnels except for Egypt and Palestine,” he said.
‘No one lies more than Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. I am not against Islam, but I am against the Muslim Brotherhood. I am a good Muslim – I fast, I pray, and I read the Koran – while they are a bunch of liars’
He then asserted firmly that “the Hamas movement is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is explicitly declared by all, and Hamas receives instructions from the office of the Muslim Brotherhood’s global general guide…”
He slammed Hamas for kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers — whom he described as settlers — in the West Bank on June 12, and then lying about its responsibility. “We agreed [with Hamas] that we would establish the National Accord government, but that it would not include a single member of the Hamas movement. This government was sworn in on June 2, and exactly ten days later, on June 12, they kidnapped the three settlers [near] Hebron. I tried to avoid creating a crisis. I spoke with [Hamas political bureau head] Khaled Mashaal and asked him whether Hamas had anything to do with the kidnapping of the settlers, and he said: We have nothing to do with it. I wanted him to confirm it again, and he swore by Allah that they had nothing to do with it. I told him: I believe you. That was in Doha.
“Then the war in Gaza broke out, and… Hamas member Salah Al-Arouri officially declared from Istanbul that it was Hamas that had kidnapped the three settlers and killed them, in order to promote Hamas’s attempt to mobilize the Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Then I asked Mashaal again about those involved in the affair, and he said that Arouri had spoken for himself, not for Hamas.
“I want to say here that no one lies more than them [Hamas] and the Muslim Brotherhood. I am not against Islam, but I am against the Muslim Brotherhood. I am a good Muslim – I fast, I pray, and I read the Koran – while they are a bunch of liars…
“Because of Hamas’s lie,” said Abbas, “this regrettable Gaza war broke out. I phoned the Egyptian president and asked him to submit a proposal to stop the war. I clarified that [such] an initiative would save the Palestinian people, and that it was the entire Palestinian people that was asking him to do this, not Hamas… President Sissi met my request, and the Egyptian initiative was proposed. They [had to] propose it for 51 days, because of Hamas’s obstinacy, and during this time the land [Gaza] was completely destroyed. On the last day [of the war], Hamas members begged me to declare a ceasefire with no reservations or conditions, after many had already been killed and wounded and Gaza was in ruins.”
“During the 50-day war, everyone spoke out against me, first of all Fatah. I told them that I am not willing to destroy the West Bank and Ramallah. Hamas, for example, killed three [Israelis], and it wanted an intifada, and I did not respond… At the end of the war, my men told me: You were right. Had we acted like them [i.e., like Hamas], the [entire] land would have been ruined,” the PA chief said.
He said Hamas was still lying, including about blowing up the homes of Fatah leaders in Gaza on November 7. Hamas was determined to prevent Palestinian reconciliation efforts, he said, and was now derailing efforts to rebuild Gaza. “They [Hamas] concluded with Robert Serry, the UN emissary for rebuilding Gaza, that we [the Palestinian Authority] as a state would be at the border and the crossings in order to receive aid and construction materials, under UN oversight, so that we could transfer them to whoever needs them. But they backed out of the agreement, and again difficulties were created for rebuilding Gaza. Despite this, we are transferring aid in a variety of ways,” said Abbas. “I ask Hamas: ‘Go to the polls again. The results will be [either] your continued control of Gaza, or the people not reelecting you. But they believe in one-off elections,” he said bitterly.