A-little-noticed Reuters item published January 10 reported that Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, has rejected a conditional Israeli offer to let Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria resettle in the West Bank and Gaza, because it would compromise their "right of return" to homes in Israel lost during the 1948 War.
According to this report, Israel agreed to allow refugees' descendants to resettle in Gaza and the West Bank on the condition they sign a statement waiving the right of return to Israel. Abbas rejected this condition and reportedly said: "It's better they die in Syria than give up their right of return."
This is nothing new; in the past, Palestinians have rejected attempts to alleviate the conditions of their refugees by resettling. They kept the refugees, and millions of their descendants, as a political card. Moreover, the refugees constitute an important element in their self-propagated image of victimhood and martyrdom.
Instead of helping his people in distress, Abbas, in the best Palestinian tradition, prefers to cling to the right of return – a demand that no Israeli government is ever going to accept. Moreover, most of the international community rejects this Palestinian demand, understanding that there is broad consensus in Israel against a mass influx of Palestinians that could destroy its Jewish character.
The Palestinians just missed another opportunity to demonstrate that they can behave in a constructive fashion and be of help to its people. Instead of pragmatic politics we see once again Palestinian adherence to radical goals that continues Palestinian suffering and that produces obstacles to peace.
Another recent display of such typical Palestinian preference was provided by Abbas, the "moderate," when he addressed his countrymen on January 4. He avoided mentioning the land-for-peace formula, or the establishment of a Palestinian state beside Israel that could bring an end to the conflict and the suffering of his people.
He did not prepare his people for the need to make concessions for the sake of peace. Instead, Abbas stressed the perennial need to adhere to the path of struggle in order to realize "the dream of return" of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The only explanation for this behavior is that the Palestinian national movement is very serious about the right of return, despite the attempts by pundits to propose that goodwill and Israeli territorial concessions can bring about a Palestinian flexibility on this issue. Dismissing Palestinian behavior and rhetoric, or belittling its importance in regard to the refugees amounts to putting your head in the sand. Unfortunately, the DNA of the Palestinian national movement contains the unrealistic demand for the right of return. Genetic engineering might be possible to induce some pragmatism, but it may take generations.
People do not give up easily upon their dreams.
This is why Abbas met Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader, in Cairo on January 10. Despite their fundamental ideological differences, they share the same dream – the destruction of the Jewish state. They may find a way to cooperate in an attempt to attain this objective, even if this could doom prospects for Palestinian statehood.
This explains why Abbas insists on not acknowledging that Israel is a Jewish state and on denying any links of the Jews to their ancestral homeland.
Abbas also takes measures to encourage armed struggle against Israel, even if they undermine the state-building efforts of the PA. He condoned at the end of December 2012 several parades of armed members of the Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the militia of Fatah, in honor of the anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement.
Tolerant attitudes toward Palestinian terrorists run counter to the main litmus test of a state – the monopoly over the use of force. Turning a blind eye to the reemergence of armed groups in Palestinian society erodes the main achievement of the PA in recent years – the restoration of law and order following the formal dismantlement of militias.
The Palestinian armed groups may be tempted to engage in violent clashes with Israel that will turn out to be disastrous for the Palestinian self-determination and peaceful existence.
While promoting non-violence, Abbas is inciting to violence, in the apparent hope that a third intifada will bring better results than the second.
Abbas promised negotiations and moderation after the upgrading of the PLO to observer state status by the UN General Assembly in November 2012.
Instead, we get inflammatory rhetoric and irresponsible, self-defeating policies.
The Palestinians, like much of the Arab world, continue to be in urgent need of better political leadership to extricate them from pathological self-destructive behavior.
Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and a fellow of the Middle East Forum.