According to Yossi Beilin (Yediot Aharonot, March 11), the political “pragmatist” Abu Mazen, who “declares everywhere that he has foregone his dream of returning to his birthplace Safed,” offers the last chance for a historical agreement with the Palestinians.

Beilin does concede that Abu Mazen’s positions are more extreme than Arafat’s, since “he obstructed the Stockholm talks between Abu Ala and Shlomo Ben-Ami,” and “was among Arafat’s ‘restrictors’ during the Camp David summit.”

But we should listen to the pragmatist himself.

“The refugees of 1948 and the refugees of 1967 have the right reserved to return to their homeland and every place they have left,” said Abu Mazen. “This is not only limited to land under the sovereignty of the PA. We demand their return to Jaffa, to Haifa and the other regions that they came from” (Al-Kuds, February 3, 1998); “Everyone who was expelled in 1948, including myself, the refugee from Safed, has the right to return and receive compensation… Personally, I want to return to Safed.” (Yedioth Ahronoth, July 9, 1999).

On July 28 and 29, 2001, about a year after the failure of the summit at Camp David, Abu Mazen explained in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam that the Palestinians are unwilling to receive less than 100% of their demands. “If you have illusions that the Palestinian side can forego… the refugees,” he wrote, “… we want Israel to recognize its responsibility for the issue of the refugees and the right of return, and then we will agree on the manner of fulfilling this right.” After relating that Clinton tried to tempt the Palestinians at Camp David by partial fulfillment of their territorial demands and with USD 40 billion for refugees, he added: “We replied that it was not an issue of funds, aid or amounts of land, but an issue of a homeland. We want to reach in full what we have received from international legitimacy.” Israel is required, according to Abu Mazen, to “bear the historical responsibility and acknowledge the right of return,” and pay compensation to those who return, those who choose not to return and the states that have hosted the refugees.

Although he asserted that the Palestinians do not want to eliminate Israel, but rather live in co-existence with it and reach an agreement with it, he added: “There are four million refugees, all of whom came from the land of historical Palestine, and they have the right to return to their homes. We are not compelling the refugees to return, but if some of them wish to return, they must return.” As for Israel’s proposals, including its willingness to absorb refugees within its borders on a humanitarian basis, he rejected them on the grounds that “I don’t think that this expresses UN Resolution 194 or the right of return,” since the refugees were supposed to “return to Israel in accordance with its sovereignty and resolutions.”

Regarding the rejection of the entire body of Israel’s proposals, he said: “I do not feel any regret. What we did was the right thing to do.” No opportunity was missed, since “the opportunity did not exist.” He illustrated his “pragmatic” approach in the following words: “They say ‘we offered 95% (of the territory),’ and I ask why not 100%?” And also “Why shouldn’t all the settlements on our side be dismantled?” Abu Mazen also attacked Sari Nusseibeh fiercely for proposing to the Palestinians to waive the demand for the “right of return” in return for establishing their state alongside Israel. In an interview given about two and half months ago to a newspaper in Abu Dhabi, he reiterated his positions and demanded the Israel acknowledge its responsibility for the suffering of the refugees and “promise them the right of return.”

Despite the fact that it is not in his hands, we can discuss the cessation of war with Abu Mazen (with proper suspicion); he indeed understands that the Palestinians are forced to suspend the use of terror, since Israel has demonstrated its ability to strike at them in their home and continue in this as long as it is required. In this domain he is indeed a “pragmatist.” But if it reaches the point of political negotiations, the bad old Abu Mazen of the “right of return” could reappear.

Dan Scheuftan is a Former Advisor to Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres
This piece ran in Yedioth Ahronoth on March 17, 2002