Palestinian and Israeli sources share the opinion that regular meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, which will continue tomorrow after Abbas returns from the United States and Portugal, were significant and comprehensive. Perhaps the most comprehensive meetings ever held between the two statesmen.
Abbas has a great deal of experience in meeting with Israeli officials; Olmert has no similar experience in meeting with Palestinian officials. As the former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert met with Arab businessmen and contractors, but not with political figures and certainly not with leaders and nationalist activists. It appears that the two men engaged in lengthy, serious discussions, listened to one another, and are learning to recognize the issues that perturb the other side.
Details of those discussions that have become known also raise problems, as expected. One problem, raised on the Palestinian side, was a statement made by Olmert in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Israeli media quoted the Prime Minister as saying, "Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Salam Fayad want to make peace with us, favor a two-state solution, and support the concept of Israel as a nation with a Jewish character."
Palestinian media slightly modified the end of this statement, "Abbas and Fayad recognize Israel as a national, Jewish state."
On the face of it, a statement like that should not rouse excitement. All the surveys conducted in the West Bank and Gaza over the years indicated that a clear and stable majority of Palestinians is prepared to accept a two-state solution. However, reality appears to be somewhat more complex. Olmert's statements triggered complaints and angry responses from Hamas spokesmen but not only from them.
Khaled Amayreh, a central Hamas activist in Hebron, provided a detailed, protracted response to Olmert's statement. "If true," he said, "this means that Abbas has committed an unforgivable strategic blunder affecting millions of Palestinians in the diaspora and in Israel proper."
Amayreh explained that this would primarily compromise the interests of more than a million Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel. He maintains that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state turns Arab-Israelis into temporary citizens, "goyim," "wood hewers," and "water carriers," in his words, and makes them candidates for transfer because they are not Jews. He says that Israel defines the state as Jewish and democratic, but the "Jewish" aspect always precedes the "democratic" aspect. In his opinion, this absolutely clarifies the "fact" that in cases where the two terms conflict, the first term overrides the second.
According to Amayreh, a second blow would be dealt to millions of Palestinian refugees who would lose their right to return to their homes and reclaim their property, because their return would reverse the Jewish character of Israel.
It is interesting to note that Abbas did not respond. This is not the first time he has been accused of relinquishing the right of return, and his constituents have claimed for a long time that it is impossible to surrender a right.
We, the Jews, also do not surrender, nor can we surrender, our rights to the historic holdings of our forefathers in Hebron, Shilo, and Anatot. But the majority of Israelis are willing to relinquish the right to realize Jewish sovereignty and Jewish settlement at those Biblical sites, in proportion to Palestinian concessions. The vast majority of Palestinians are clearly aware that it is impossible for millions of refugees to return to their homes and land in Jaffa, Ramle, and Haifa.
Everyone knows that this is Israel's red line. In an endless number of deliberations of a solution to the refugee problem and proposed solutions, a formula was suggested which would divide the "right of return" into two terms: "Right" and "return." The right exists; it is not subject to appeal, nor is the somewhat problematic wording of UN Resolution 194, which recognizes that right, subject to appeal. But practical return to the geographic domain of the State of Israel is not feasible.
This is not a disingenuous play of words, but a real attempt to grapple with the problem that touches the most emotionally volatile issues among the Palestinian public. After 60 years, the State of Israel is strong enough to desist from appealing the right of return at a time when it is clear that actual return is impossible.