Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has had a shot at making the peace process an issue in the upcoming Israeli elections.
In an interview with Channel Two last week, he effectively relinquished the Palestinian “right of return” to all parts of what used to be Palestine and is today Israel.
“The West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are Palestine, all the rest is Israel, now and forever,” he said to the Israeli public. He added that he would like to return to the Galilee town of Safed to visit the house in which he was born but he is prepared to do so as a tourist. He added that he would not allow a third intifada to break out.
The angry reaction from Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza, who burned effigies of Mr Abbas, was automatic, as was Mr Abbas’s own retractions. He said afterwards that the interview had been “edited and skewed” and that he had been expressing his personal views, since no-one could give up the right of return.
Whatever his true beliefs, Mr Abbas knew exactly what he was doing when he promised Israelis that Palestinian national aspirations would not threaten them in any way. He does not expect the diplomatic process to be renewed in the 80 days before Israel’s elections but he would like that process to be an issue in the election campaign. His first objective is not to let the Palestinians disappear from the agenda as they have from the speeches of the two candidates in the American presidential elections, but he is also hoping to sway at least a few Israeli voters towards parties that are prepared to make concessions to the Palestinians in future negotiations.
Reactions from Israeli politicians have been defined by their level of interest in the Palestinians becoming an issue during the election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is campaigning chiefly on his financial record and his forceful campaign against the Iranian nuclear threat, was predictably dismissive.
“I watched the interview with President Abbas and have since heard that he has already retracted. It only proves the importance of direct negotiations without preconditions” said Mr Netanyahu. “Abu Mazen has refused for four years to renew negotiations with Israel. If he was serious, we could sit down to talks immediately.”
Labour’s Shelly Yachimovich also reacted coolly to the Abbas interview, saying that an Israeli return to the 1967 borders was “out of the question”. Her lack of interest in the Palestinian issue is due to her eagerness to concentrate on social issues during the campaign.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who is trying to capture some votes from the centre-left for his Atzmaut Party, lauded Mr Abbas as “brave” and criticised the government he still sits in, saying that “it should have done much more to progress in the peace process”.
The interview has not moved peace process forward in any way, but it has achieved what Mr Abbas was aiming for — it created a political stir in Israel.