As Abbas appears to soften peace demands, PA officials say his views unchanged

After PA leader voices support for demilitarized Palestinian state, tempers tone on refugees, Palestinian sources say his stance has been consistent since the 1970s

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivering a speech on August 15, 2018. (WAFA)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivering a speech on August 15, 2018. (WAFA)

Despite a series of ostensibly conciliatory statements, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not softened his stance on any of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officials in Ramallah stressed this week.

During a meeting with an Israeli group on Tuesday, Abbas said he does not support a solution to the contentious issue of Palestinian refugees that would “destroy Israel.”

At the same meeting in his Ramallah headquarters, the Palestinian leader also said he believed a future Palestinian state should be demilitarized, offering rare backing for a key Israeli demand in any peace deal.

“The president has been saying this not only since he was elected, but he has been saying this since the 1970s,” Elias Zananiri, the vice chair of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

“What he said Tuesday he had said on dozens of occasions, including to a group of 300 students from all over Israel a few years ago. But the media doesn’t want to listen.”

Zananiri was likely referring to a widely covered February 2014 event, during which Abbas told Israeli students and youth activists that he would not demand that five million Palestinians refugees and their descendants enter Israel “to destroy” the state, but insisted that the refugee problem needs to be addressed.

“All that we said was, come let’s put the refugee question on the table, because refugees is a topic that must be resolved to bring an end to conflict,” Abbas said at the time. “But we do not seek, and we will not seek, to flood Israel with millions in order to change its social culture. This is nonsense that you read in the Hebrew media and elsewhere.”

Israeli students and young activists listen to Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, February 16, 2014 (courtesy)

Zananiri, a former spokesperson for the PA’s interior and internal security ministry, claimed Thursday that Abbas endorses these positions not only when he addresses Israelis, but also when he speaks to “international audiences.”

Abbas’s comments this week were not carried by the PA’s official Wafa news agency, which usually reports on his policy pronouncements.

On Wednesday, Abbas harshly criticized Israel’s recently passed nation-state law.

At a press conference with Bosnian leader Bakir Izetbegovic, Abbas did not restate his positions about demilitarization or the refugee question, but Zananiri said that was because he was not asked about it.

“These are consistent positions of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] at large, not only of President Abbas,” Zananiri said.

Another Palestinian official, who asked not to be named, also said that the positions expressed by Abbas during Tuesday’s meeting with the Israeli academics are nothing new and do not indicate a possible softening of Palestinian positions.

“The president has been dialoguing with Israelis for decades. He has firmly held these positions since I first met him,” the official, who was present at the meeting, told The Times of Israel.

“For the president, these positions are a matter of principle.”

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, recalled that Abbas has said similar things in the past when addressing Israelis. He doubted that the specific timing of his remarks has anything to do with the US administration’s vow to cut all financial aid to the Palestinians or its upcoming peace plan.

“The Palestinians are in a position of overwhelming weakness at this point,” he said. “Abbas is at the end of his career. He was never a terribly audacious leader and he certainly isn’t one now.”

Abbas, 83, met on Tuesday with Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya professor Ilai Alon; 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.

“He told us that he does not support or want a solution to the issue of refugees that would ‘destroy Israel,’” Ilai Alon said.

His son Kfir Alon said, “Abbas said that it is unreasonable for Israel to absorb all Palestinian refugees. 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.”

The meeting was first reported on by the Kan public broadcaster, emphasizing Abbas’s endorsement of the Israeli demand that a future Palestinian state be entirely demilitarized.

“I support a state along the 1967 borders without an army. I want unarmed police forces with batons, not guns,” Abbas said, according to the report. “Instead of warplanes and tanks, I prefer to build schools and hospitals and allocate funds and resources to social institutions.”

During his Wednesday meeting with Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of a tripartite inter-ethnic Bosnian presidency, Abbas sounded much less conciliatory, slamming the nation-state law as “racist” and reminiscent of South African apartheid.

“I told his excellency about the latest illegitimate laws that Israel legislated including the racist, apartheid nation-state law,” Abbas said.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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