On Saturday morning, the day after his important meeting with President Bush, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met with more than 100 Palestinian-Americans and other Americans of Arab descent, who belong to the relatively new American Task Force on Palestine. There was nothing new in the statement issued after the meeting. It said that Abu Mazen presented his vision of a just and long-lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vision, said the statement, is based on the principle of an independent, viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, and that both nations will live side by side in peace.
The statement's contribution to conciliation between the nations is actually what was not said. Judging by the statement, Abu Mazen did not promise the Palestinian exiles a return to Jaffa. As opposed to Yasser Arafat, who knows how to play with national and religious symbols and the sentiments of the masses, Abu Mazen is pragmatic and honest. He is careful not to sell illusions to the miserable and does not swear in public that he will free Al Aqsa and win the right of return.
In that same farewell lecture in Washington, he said that it is possible that his two-state vision is the last opportunity to achieve peace, not only between the governments, but also between the peoples. He has long since understood that one White House reprimand of the Israeli prime minister contributes far more to conciliation than a dozen pictures of buses blowing up. He internalized the fact that the images of funerals of teenagers who went to a mall in Samaria is a blow to the Israeli camp that supports a withdrawal from Samaria.
A cessation of the mass terror attacks was an important and necessary step toward rehabilitation of "Barak voters'" faith in the two-state vision. But to get most Israeli citizens to choose a government that will promise to free the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation, as the current prime minister has called it, a temporary return of security to the streets of the country will not be enough.
For that change to take place, Abu Mazen will have to promise the Israeli public that his vision is not a temporary matter. As long as the right of return hovers over them like a threat, the vast majority of Israelis regard the two-state vision as a way station on the road to the elimination of the state of Israel.
Abu Mazen expects Israel to behave on the matter of the right of return like the lady in the well-known Bernard Shaw story - agree on the principle, they say, and we'll be able to come up with an agreement on the actual number of refugees who will be allowed into Israel. Abu Mazen himself personally stood up in a refugee camp in Syria and told the keyholders from Jaffa that most of them will have to actualize the right of return in other places.
The surprising results from Dr. Khalil Shkaki's survey of 4,500 refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and the territories shows the demand for recognition in principle of the right of return is the main obstacle to solving the problem of the refugees. While the vast majority - 95 percent - of the refugees refuse to give up the right, if it is actually offered to them, most will immediately drop the demand to actualize it. Only a minority, about 5 percent, is interested in becoming Israeli citizens so they can go back to villages that were wiped off the face of the earth.
An absolute majority of the refugees, 54 percent, prefer to actualize the vision of the Palestinian state and to settle in the West Bank or Gaza, or in territories exchanged by Israel in the final deal. That vision could become reality if Abu Mazen and his partners in the leadership announce they are adopting the Clinton formula, which proposes, among other solutions, to absorb a very limited number of refugees in Israel on humanitarian grounds.
Israel's citizenry won't be satisfied with Abu Mazen's thundering silence in Washington on the right of return. To turn the Israelis into partners for the two-state vision, he will have to state publicly and loudly, that the right of the two nations to live in peace takes priority over the theoretical right of people to go back to villages that no longer exist.
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