Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he does not support a solution to the contentious issue of Palestinian refugees that would “destroy Israel,” according to two Israelis who met with him on Tuesday and spoke to The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
“He told us that he does not support or want a solution to the issue of refugees that would ‘destroy Israel’,” Ilai Alon, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a fluent Arabic speaker, said in a phone call.
Abbas has previously made similar comments on the refugee issue.
Abbas’s remarks came amid reports that the US will “essentially abrogate” the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians designated as refugees by the UN, and that it will defund the UN body that handles the refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
As reported earlier, Abbas also told the Israelis he met with on Tuesday he believed a future Palestinian state should be demilitarized, offering rare backing for a key Israeli demand in any peace deal.
Abbas, 83, met on Tuesday with Alon; Alon’s son Kfir Alon, the head of business development at an Israeli NGO; Yaakov Karkukly, a resident of central Israel originally from Baghdad; and Ari Shuali, a retired Mossad officer, at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah.
The Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, a PLO-mandated body led by Fatah Central Committee member Muhammed al-Madani, arranged the meeting.
Kfir Alon echoed his father’s words.
“Abbas said that it is unreasonable for Israel to absorb all Palestinian refugees,” he said. “He told us he opposes that because it would destroy Israel. But he also said that we still need to find a solution to the issue of refugees.”
A Palestinian official who was present at the meeting confirmed the substance of Abbas’s remarks, but said the PA chief did not use the word “destroy.”
“He said that he does not want to ‘drown’ Israel with refugees, but that we still need to find a solution to the issue of refugees,” the Palestinian official, who asked to remain unnamed, said in a phone call. “He did not use the term ‘destroy.'”
The fate of Palestinian refugees has long been one of the most sensitive issues in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abbas and other top Palestinian officials have long called for “a just and agreed upon” solution to the issue of refugees in accordance with UN General Assembly resolution 194.
Issued in the middle of the Arab-Israel War of Independence in December 1948, UN General Assembly resolution 194 says that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” and adds that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”
Israel has staunchly opposed the return of Palestinian refugees to their former and ancestral homes, arguing that such a move would spell the end of the country as a Jewish-majority state.
UNRWA says there are more than five million refugees today, counting descendants of the original refugees, even though there were roughly 750,000 after the 1948 War of Independence. The number of surviving original refugees is in the low tens of thousands.
Abbas further said that “he supports the deployment of American forces along the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state,” Ilai Alon said. “But he also said that he thinks that American forces will not be needed because Israel and the Palestinian state will have a very cooperative relationship.”
The Palestinian official confirmed Ilai’s quote of Abbas on the deploying of American forces between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Abbas has previously said that he supports the deployment of NATO forces along the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Asked if Abbas mentioned NATO forces on Tuesday, Alon said the PA chief had only spoken about American forces.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Abbas met with Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of the tripartite inter-ethnic Bosnian presidency, at his headquarters in Ramallah. The PA president said that he spoke with Izetbegovic about Israel’s controversial quasi-constitutional nation-state law.
“I told his excellency about the latest illegitimate laws that Israel legislated, including the racist, apartheid nation-state law,” Abbas told a press conference in Ramallah.
The nation-state law, which the Knesset passed with a 62-55 vote on July 19, enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language and vowed to encourage Jewish settlement.
The legislation included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which pledged that the nascent state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” — and appeared to grant the Arabic language a lesser status than that of Hebrew.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the legislation.
At a cabinet meeting earlier this month, Netanyahu pushed back against criticism, arguing that other quasi-constitutional laws protect all Israelis’ individual rights. He also contended that the law was necessary to ensure that “Israel remains not just democratic, but also the nation-state of the Jewish people, and of the Jewish people alone.”
Abbas also reiterated support for an international conference to support efforts to achieve peace.
At the UN in February, he called for an international conference to establish a multilaterally mediated mechanism for the peace process.