‘Abbas was ready to compromise on right of return’

‘Abbas was ready to compromise on right of return’

PA president showed willingness to sign a deal that would severely limit the number of refugees allowed into Israel, New Republic claims, but talks were cut short by Olmert’s resignation

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Then-prime minister Eud Olmert shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, 2008 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Then-prime minister Eud Olmert shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, 2008 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

In 2008, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas was close to accepting a peace agreement that would include only a symbolic Israeli concession to the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, the New Republic reported on Monday.

According to the magazine’s cover story by Ben Birnbaum, during peace talks between Abbas and then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, Olmert proposed allowing the relocation of a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees (5,000 over the course of five years) within Israeli borders, while offering compensation and resettlement for the rest.

“I would’ve compromised a little,” Olmert is quoted as telling Birnbaum.

“Highly knowledgeable sources” quoted in the story claimed that Abbas told then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that he would be willing to accept a deal wherein Israel would accept somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 refugees.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) definitions, there are 30,000-50,000 living refugees of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. That number grows to nearly five million when expanded to include the original refugees’ patrilineal descendants.

“Our reading was that there was a deal to be done on [the refugee issue],” Stephen Hadley, then-US president George W. Bush’s national security adviser, was quoted as saying.

Abbas agreed to consider the more limited proposal and said he had no intentions of undermining Israeli sovereignty, the report said.

“I can tell you one thing,” Olmert quotes Abbas as saying. “We are not aspiring to change the nature of your country.”

The New Republic also reported that over the course of Olmert and Abbas’s talks, the two men agreed to divide Jerusalem largely along ethnic lines, similar to a proposal put forth by Bill Clinton in 2000, with both leaders agreeing that the most religiously sensitive areas in the Old City be placed under the control of a five-nation consortium.

The pair reportedly also sought to identify a mutually agreeable set of land swaps, in which Israel would annex certain settlements and give the Palestinians equivalent chunks of land in exchange.

Olmert proposed that Israel annex some 6.3 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and compensate the Palestinians with a corresponding 5.8% of the size of the West Bank within Israeli territory, plus a corridor linking Gaza to the West Bank. The Palestinians reportedly countered with a proposal for a smaller, 1.9% land swap.

Olmert’s offer would require Israel to evacuate 70,000 settlers, while the Palestinian proposal would mean the removal of some 160,000 people.

According to the report, in September 2008, Olmert showed Abbas a map of a Palestinian state comprising the territorial equivalent of 100% of the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem, to which Abbas responded, “This is quite serious. I have to admit, this is very serious,” and promised to think about it. Olmert reportedly then retorted, “Don’t think about it. Sign it now. I want to tell you one thing: In the next 50 years, there will be no prime minister in Israel who will propose to you something similar to this.”

The discussions ended up going nowhere, the report said, in large part because Abbas believed that Olmert, who had announced that he planned to resign in order to fight corruption allegations, did not have the political clout to see the deal through.

According to Hadley, Bush felt the same way, and during a 2008 meeting with then-foreign minister and prospective Kadima head Tzipi Livni, the US president urged her to strike a deal with Abbas.

“The argument [was] the same for both sides: It’s, ‘Tzipi, you’ll never get to the right of [Benjamin] Netanyahu, so you might as well run to his left with something to run on.’ And to Abbas, it’s: ‘Look, Hamas is gonna to kill you. You can’t be tougher on this process than Hamas, so you ought to do what actually the Palestinian people want you to do, which is to reach an agreement, and you each ought to run on that agreement, and if you do and show leadership and boldness, you’ll win.’” said Hadley.

Livni, who failed to heed Bush’s advice, went on to win 28 seats in the 2009 elections — one more than Netanyahu’s Likud party — but failed to form a coalition, landing Netanyahu in the prime minister’s seat. Livni, currently the head of the Hatnua party, recently joined Netanyahu’s emergent government, based, among other things, on a promise that she will oversee negotiations with the Palestinians.

During an interview with Channel 2 News in early November, Abbas took a notably moderate position on the refugee issue, and explicitly said that the Palestinians have no territorial demands on Israel in its pre-1967 lines.

When asked what he considered to be Palestine, Abbas responded, “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever… This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah.”

Interviewer Udi Segal cut in: “Sometimes your official television… speak[s] about Acre and Ramle and Jaffa [all cities within sovereign Israel] as ‘Palestine.’”

“I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine,” said Abbas, “and the other parts [are] Israel.”

Noting that he himself had been born in Safed, in what since 1948 has been northern Israel, Abbas said he had visited the town and would like to see it again, but not to make his home there. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he said.

Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Abbas, later backtracked, claiming Abbas had merely referred hypothetically to what would occur when a Palestinian state is established.

“What was said is what is going to happen when the state of Palestine is established alongside Israel,” said Hammad, “and therefore the president never mentioned the word giving up the ‘right of return.’”

Hammad said earlier that Abbas was being “realistic,” noting, “He knows he can’t bring back five-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees to Israel.”

Last November, despite stark opposition by both Israel and the US, Abbas led a successful Palestinian effort to be recognized as a nonmember observer state at the UN General Assembly.

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