Mahmoud Abbas Giving Up Palestinian Right of Return?!

Leo Rennert
It happened during an interview of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on an Israeli television channel.  Abbas was asked whether he wanted to go back to his boyhood home in Safed, which is now in Israel.  "I want to see Safed," Abbas replied.  "It's my right to see it but not to live there."   For good measure, Abbas added that a future Palestinian state should include only the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Abbas' remarks set off a firestorm across all parts of Palestinian society.  It was denounced as heresy and treason for seemingly dropping Abbas' own long-time demand of a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.  Of all the issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians, a Palestinian "right of return" is perhaps the toughest nut to crack.  To Israel, it amounts to nothing less than demographic elimination of the Jewish state -- a green light for millions of Palestinians to swamp Israel. 

And yet, here was Abbas, forfeiting the right of Palestinians to return to Israel under his vision of a peace agreement.

But it didn't last long.  A short while later, as Abbas became the target of furious Palestinian denunciations, he took it all back.  It was an ignominious, hasty retreat.   Abbas said he only had meant to talk about his personal aspirations, and not about the "sacred" right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The damage, however, couldn't be undone.  Palestinians in the territories and abroad continued to fume about Abbas's concession, which was immediately welcomed by Israel's peace camp, led by President Shimon Peres.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, brushed it aside, pointing out Abbas's 180-degree turn.

Western and Arab media waded in, portraying Abbas as undermining what's left of his leadership.

But not the Washington Post, which has a long record of sanitizing Abbas.  In a dispatch from Jerusalem, Post correspondent Joel Greenberg cited at length Abbas's dovish peace terms, but then very briefly wrote that Abbas later "explained" that he had given a "personal position,"  which shouldn't be interpreted as renunciation of the "right of return."  Neither the headline nor the first half of Greenberg's article alerted readers that Abbas' "peace" overture had a shelf life of less than a day.

It was Greenberg's way of bending over backwards to get Abbas off the hook -- a hallmark of Post coverage.  If Netanyahu had committed a turnaround of such proportions, you can rest assured that Greenberg and the Post would not be quite so charitable.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.

It happened during an interview of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on an Israeli television channel.  Abbas was asked whether he wanted to go back to his boyhood home in Safed, which is now in Israel.  "I want to see Safed," Abbas replied.  "It's my right to see it but not to live there."   For good measure, Abbas added that a future Palestinian state should include only the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Abbas' remarks set off a firestorm across all parts of Palestinian society.  It was denounced as heresy and treason for seemingly dropping Abbas' own long-time demand of a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.  Of all the issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians, a Palestinian "right of return" is perhaps the toughest nut to crack.  To Israel, it amounts to nothing less than demographic elimination of the Jewish state -- a green light for millions of Palestinians to swamp Israel. 

And yet, here was Abbas, forfeiting the right of Palestinians to return to Israel under his vision of a peace agreement.

But it didn't last long.  A short while later, as Abbas became the target of furious Palestinian denunciations, he took it all back.  It was an ignominious, hasty retreat.   Abbas said he only had meant to talk about his personal aspirations, and not about the "sacred" right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The damage, however, couldn't be undone.  Palestinians in the territories and abroad continued to fume about Abbas's concession, which was immediately welcomed by Israel's peace camp, led by President Shimon Peres.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, brushed it aside, pointing out Abbas's 180-degree turn.

Western and Arab media waded in, portraying Abbas as undermining what's left of his leadership.

But not the Washington Post, which has a long record of sanitizing Abbas.  In a dispatch from Jerusalem, Post correspondent Joel Greenberg cited at length Abbas's dovish peace terms, but then very briefly wrote that Abbas later "explained" that he had given a "personal position,"  which shouldn't be interpreted as renunciation of the "right of return."  Neither the headline nor the first half of Greenberg's article alerted readers that Abbas' "peace" overture had a shelf life of less than a day.

It was Greenberg's way of bending over backwards to get Abbas off the hook -- a hallmark of Post coverage.  If Netanyahu had committed a turnaround of such proportions, you can rest assured that Greenberg and the Post would not be quite so charitable.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.