November 12, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 897

'Abbas In Interview On Israeli TV: I Have Right To Visit Safed But Not Live There; 'Abbas In Interview On Egyptian TV: I Did Not Waive Right Of Return, Was Expressing My Private Opinion

November 12, 2012 | By C. Jacob*
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 897


Statements made by PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas in a November 2, 2012 interview on Israeli TV[1] sparked intense criticism against him, being understood as a relinquishment of the Palestinians' right of return. Asked whether he would have liked to visit Safed, his birth town in northern Israel, 'Abbas said that he would have liked to see it, but that he had no right to live there today. He emphasized that "Palestine" for him meant the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, whereas the rest of the country was Israel. He also stated that, as long as he was president, there would not be another armed intifada.

The president's statements evoked harsh criticism from Hamas, which accused him of treason and demanded that he apologize to his people. In an attempt to extricate himself from the embarrassing situation, 'Abbas clarified that his remarks about Safed were his own private opinion, and that he had not waived the right of return. He and his associates also explained that his statements had been broadcast only in part and taken out of context. 'Abbas's spokesman said that a televised interview was not negotiations, and the purpose of the interview was to influence Israeli public opinion. Some PA officials and Fatah-affiliated columnists defended 'Abbas's statements, stating that they reflected a realistic political position that accepts the necessity of a two-state solution.

This report reviews the affair and some of the reactions to it:

'Abbas Interview On Channel Two

The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Interviewer: "Is there a chance for a third intifada?"

'Abbas: "No. As long as I am in office, there will be no armed third intifada. Never. We don't want to use terror. We don't want to use force, we don't want to use weapons."

[ ...]

Interviewer: "Your official television sometimes praises killing, even though you are against it. Sometimes, for example, your official television speaks about Acre, Ramla and Jaffa as Palestine. You are originally from Safed."

'Abbas: "From Safed. Yes."

Interviewer: "Do you wish to go there?"

'Abbas: "Of course, I want to see Safed."

Interviewer: "To visit, or to live?"

'Abbas: "No, I want to visit with somebody else who is sitting with us now. I visited Safed once. I want to see Safed. It's my right to see it. But not to live there."

Interviewer: "But this is [part of] Palestine for you?"

'Abbas: "Palestine for me is the '67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Now and forever. This is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, but I live in Ramallah. I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other part is Israel."

Hamas: Giving Up Even An Inch Of Palestine Is Treason

'Abbas's statements evoked harsh criticism from Hamas and protests in Gaza against the president. Marches were held, with the participation of Legislative Council members, at which protesters burned 'Abbas's picture. Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya said that his statements were "very dangerous and harm[ed] the right of return and the fate of six million Palestinians." He added: "President 'Abbas has no right to give up any Arab and Islamic city within the borders of Palestine. Nobody has the right to give up even an inch of Palestinian soil or our right to return to our Palestinian homes."

Hamas official Saleh Al-Bardawil said: "Palestine means all of Palestine, from the river to the sea, and it belongs to every Palestinian. Nobody may relinquish it or abandon it, and whoever does so is a traitor who should be put to trial by his people." Al-Bardawil clarified that his movement would not recognize any agreement 'Abbas signed in the name of the Palestinian people, and called on him to apologize to his people for waiving the right of return.[2]

Pictures of 'Abbas burned in Gaza

Israeli Arab Journalist: 'Abbas Must Resign

In an article published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, journalist Zuheir Andreas, an Israeli Arab, wrote that the refugees' return was a thousand times more important than establishing a Palestinian state, and called on 'Abbas to resign. He said that 'Abbas's statements, which were "calculated to influence the upcoming elections to the 19th Knesset," had "crossed all the red lines, and oblige the Palestinian Arab people to stand up and act."

He added that these statements did not represent the prevailing views among the Palestinians, including the Israeli Arabs and the six million Palestinian refugees. "Therefore, Mr. 'Abbas, do not speak on our behalf," he said. "We are ashamed of you and your positions. If you still feel any affinity with the Palestinian people, do the courageous thing: resign and announce the dissolving of the PA, which is a proxy of the Israeli occupation. Let the people struggle by whatever means they see fit to achieve their rights, which are affirmed by U.N. resolutions. Even if you are not sick [of being president], the people are sick of you. Get up and leave. Enough with this disgrace."[4]

Popular Front, Democratic Front Spokesmen: 'Abbas's Statements Do Not Reflect The PLO's Position

'Abd Al-Rahim Malouh, deputy secretary-general of the Palestinian Popular Front, said that nobody should exploit his position or post to waive the right of return, adding: "As the head of the PLO and chairman of its Executive Committee, ['Abbas] bears great responsibility for his statements on the right of return." Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar, also from the Popular Front, said of the president's remarks that "they do not reflect the positions and principles of the Palestinian people. The right of return, which 'Abbas wants to waive, is a sacred and permanent right and a red line that nobody can give up, no matter what [his position]. It is not [a matter of] private opinion."[5]

A Democratic Front official said that "'Abbas's remarks reflect his private opinion only, and not the position of the PLO, which cleaves to the agreed-upon plan: self determination, [the establishment of] an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the refugees' return to their homes in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194."[6]

'Abbas Clarifies: I Did Not Waive The Right Of Return

'Abbas responded to the criticism against him in a November 3, 2012 interview with the Egyptian TV channel Al-Hayat.[vii] He said that his critics had not seen the entire interview but only parts of it, and that this method (i.e., broadcasting statements selectively) was frequently used by the media, especially by Al-Jazeera, and also by various factions that were trying to "fish in murky waters." As for the content of his interview, he made the following clarifications:

On The Right Of Return:

"My statements about Safed were my private opinion, and do not mean giving up the right of return. Nobody can give up the right of return. All the international documents and all the resolutions of the Arab and Muslim countries speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem, in accordance with [U.N.] Resolution 194. 'Agreed-upon' refers to an agreement with the Israeli side.

"The six core issues, including the refugee issue, will be placed on the table in the negotiations over the final settlement, based on the U.N. resolutions, and the refugee issue [will be dealt with] in accordance with Resolution 194. [Subsequently,] the solution will be put to a referendum [among the Palestinians], and will either be accepted or rejected. Resolution 194 speaks of the right of return, or compensation for those who do not wish to return – so return is the basic [principle]. The Arab peace initiative also speaks of a just and agreed-upon solution... The issue of the refugees is sacred."

On A State Within The 1967 Borders:

"It was Hamas that suggested [accepting] a state with temporary borders and which is negotiating such a [solution] with Israel and others. This plan was proposed by [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon, and some Israeli circles are still discussing it. It speaks of a state on 45%-50% of the territories of the West Bank [in return for] a hudna for 10-15 years. That is a dangerous [notion] that must not be accepted... All Palestinians accept the two-state solution, with a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad endorsed this in the last [inter-Palestinian] reconciliation agreement [signed] in Cairo. We agreed on the 1967 borders, on non-violent popular resistance and on elections..."

On Popular Versus Armed Resistance:

"From [the day] the second intifada started, I considered it a mistake, and thought it should not continue, because it was armed. Back then, my opinion went against the current. When I submitted my candidacy for president, I reiterated that I opposed an armed intifada and supported a non-violent intifada [coupled with] negotiations, and to this day I am convinced that there is no need for an armed intifada. All the [Palestinian] factions agree on popular resistance, and even in Gaza, Hamas shoots at anyone who fires missiles [into Israel].

"Using weapons is an act of violence, and I do not want to use violence because I do not believe in it. [An armed] struggle against Israel is doomed to fail, whereas popular resistance helps us win international support. I have said this many times: as long as I remain office, there will be no armed intifada. Our people have decided, by means of its representatives, on popular resistance, and even factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad [agreed to this]. All of them firmly stressed [the need for] popular resistance."[8]

Reactions By PA, Fatah Officials

'Abbas's Spokesman: The Purpose Of The Interview Was To Influence Public Opinion In Israel

Associates of 'Abbas and columnists in the Fatah-affiliated media defended the president and attacked Hamas.

'Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said that "a televised interview is not negotiations, and the purpose of the interview was to influence Israeli public opinion." Others resorted to technical explanations, stating that 'Abbas's statements had been taken out of context or had not been aired in full. A Fatah communiqué implied that the president's statements had been distorted, stating that, "since the interview was in English, there was possibility of deception, especially on the part of the Israeli media."[9]

Fatah Officials: 'Abbas Did Not Relinquish The Right Of Return

Others insisted that the president's statements did not imply a relinquishment of the right or return. Fatah spokesman Ahmad 'Assaf said that 'Abbas had "affirmed the national principles, including the Palestinians' right to return to the homes from which they were expelled," and accused Hamas of taking the president's words out of context.[10] Fatah Revolutionary Council member Dr. Jamal Nazal said that 'Abbas's position was clearly evident from the fact that he had reached understandings with Olmert about the borders and about security arrangements, but not about the refugees. No one could ever give up the right of return, Nazal declared.

Fatah, PA Officials: The President's Position Is Realistic And Reflects Commitment To A Two-State Solution

Some Fatah and PA officials and columnists explained that 'Abbas's statements reflected a realistic political position that accepts the necessity of a two-state solution, but does not mean waiving the right of return. 'Abbas's advisor Nimr Hamad said that the president's claim that Safed would remain part of Israel, rather than Palestine, reflected the fact that the Palestinian state would be established alongside Israel. He stressed that the words "relinquishing the right of return" had not been uttered in the interview.[11]

Fatah Revolutionary Council member Bakr Abu Bakr said: "The president, who said he did not want to live in Safed, the city of his birth, cannot live there because Israel is there, and it denies him this right. He knows that the option of return, and of settling [in his old home], which is affirmed by the U.N. resolution on the refugees, is a personal right of any individual, regardless of status, [for] all are equal in the eyes of international and national law, and nobody can deny this right. Had I been in the president's place, I would have expressed a desire to live in Haifa, the birthplace of my father, because all of Palestine is ours. However, [there is also] political realism, which is something on which all the factions agree, including Hamas – at least the Hamas [leaders] outside [Gaza].[12]

'Adel 'Abd Al-Rahman, a columnist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote: "'Abbas is the head of the PA and the PLO, and the president of the future Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. His statement about not returning to Safed is realistic, reasonable and consistent with the option of two-states for two peoples, [based on] the 1967 borders. The president did not waive any Palestinian's right of return, not even that of his wife, Umm Mazen, his sons, his grandsons or any other family member."[13]

Nabil Al-Batrawi, a columnist on a Fatah-affiliated website, argued that anywhere in Palestine the refugees had fled, including Safed, would remain "in the Palestinians' conscience," but said that it was not clear when the Palestinians would be able to return there, and advocated a realistic approach: "We must be honest and realistic. On November 15, 1988, [the Palestinians] declared an independent state in the territories [Israel] occupied in 1967, which, as everyone knows, are the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It was also decided that a just solution [would be sought] for the refugee problem, based on the Arab [peace] initiative and the U.N. resolutions, chiefly [Resolution] 194.

"Here comes the question that many refuse to answer, because they cling to hackneyed expressions and blissful dreams: What is the meaning of this declaration of independence, which our people welcomed? Does it not mean a clear recognition of [the need] to accept a solution of peace with Israel? Is Israel a state that is floating in the air, or is it a reality on the ground, recognized by all Arab states, many of which maintain diplomatic relations with it and let its flag wave in their capitals?... Do [these people] want us to lose what is left of Palestine through a deceptive refusal to accept reality? Is it not enough that, in the past, we rejected U.N. resolutions which... could have [spared us] the situation we are facing today?...

"Today, some people are trying to twist words and deceive the Palestinians by repeating obsolete slogans, which are no longer part of the Palestinian lexicon. [These slogans] are far removed from reality and from the [consensus] of the Arab peoples, who have approved the Arab [peace] initiative [that calls for] a collective Arab recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal from the Arab lands that were occupied in '67 and a resolution of the refugee problem based on the U.N. resolutions."[14]

Writing in the London daily Al-Hayat, Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghieh implied that 'Abbas's statement did reflect a relinquishment of the right of return, and that this was a realistic position. "The [notion of] the right of return does not jibe with the two-state solution," he said. "It is naïve to believe that the Israeli Jews would agree to settle five of six million Arab and Muslim Palestinians in their land." Saghieh also expressed doubt that the refugees who had left Israel in 1948 and their descendents would even want to return, because they have since become Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians more than Palestinians. He added that the president's only mistake was a tactical one: he should have left this concession to the negotiations rather than hand it to Israel on a silver platter.[15]

Conversely, Hassan 'Asfour, editor of a PLO-affiliated website, harshly criticized 'Abbas, saying that, as PA president, he could not afford to make "personal" statements, and that he must declare explicitly that his remarks had been a "slip of the tongue."[16]


In MEMRI's assessment, 'Abbas's remarks to Channel Two were an attempt to influence the upcoming parliamentary elections in Israel, and he recanted because he was unable to withstand the pressure from Palestinian circles.

It should be noted that, in the past, 'Abbas has expressed a desire to return to Safed.[17] Therefore, his remark to Channel Two that he had no right to live there today constitutes a shift in his position. However, his subsequent remarks to the Egyptian channel – that he had only been expressing his private opinion, and that he had not and would not waive the right of return – make this shift less significant and constitute a clear withdrawal from his remarks to Channel Two, where he seemed to be speaking as head of the PLO and PA, not as a private individual.

However, it must be stressed that 'Abbas's interview on the Egyptian channel contained important statements that he did not withdraw, and which make the interview significant, namely that Palestine constitutes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that, as long as he is president, there will be no armed intifada.

Beyond demonstrating that 'Abbas is politically unable to imply any willingness to waive the right of return, the significance of this interview also lies in the fact that it sparked a Palestinian public debate in which PA officials and columnists described his position as realistic.

* C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] For excerpts, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 3634 PA President Mahmoud Abbas Presents His Views on the Right of Return, November 2-3, 2012.

[2], November 3, 2012.

[3], November 2, 2012.

[4] Haaretz (Israel), October 8, 2012.

[5], November 3, 2012.

[6], November 3, 2012.

[7] For excerpts, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 3634 PA President Mahmoud Abbas Presents His Views on the Right of Return, November 2-3, 2012.

[8], November 4, 2012.

[9], November 3, 2012.

[10], November 3, 2012.

[11], November 3, 2012.

[12], November 3, 2012.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), November 3, 2012.

[14], November 3, 2012.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), November 6, 2012.

[16], November 3, 2012.

[17] Kul Al-'Arab (Israel), May 23, 1996.

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