Abbas tells young Israelis he's not seeking to 'drown' Israel with Palestinian refugees

The Associated Press

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, top left, and Israeli Labor party lawmaker Hilik Bar, top second left, arrive for a meeting with a delegation of mostly Israeli university students and activists in dovish political parties, at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. Abbas said that he does not want to "drown Israel with millions of (Palestinian) refugees to change its nature." Abbas' comment Sunday was his most conciliatory yet on the fate of Palestinian refugees who were uprooted from homes in what is now Israel, including in the 1948 war over Israel's creation. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

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By DANIEL ESTRIN and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president on Sunday reassured a group of young Israeli activists visiting his West Bank compound that he has no intention of flooding Israel with Palestinian refugees — his most ambitious attempt yet to directly influence Israeli public opinion over the heads of a largely hard-line Israeli leadership.

President Mahmoud Abbas made a series of conciliatory statements on some of the most sensitive issues in peace talks, including alleged Palestinian incitement against Israel and recognition of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, as he sought to rally support for U.S.-backed peace efforts.

Abbas delivered his message at a sensitive time in the peace talks. The sides have been conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations for nearly seven months. With an April target date approaching, there have been no signs of progress. The talks have been marred by finger pointing, with both sides accusing each other of hindering the negotiations with rigid demands.

Speaking to some 300 Israeli university students and activists, Abbas signaled new flexibility in one of the thorniest issues of the conflict: Palestinian refugees' "right of return" to lost properties in what is now Israel.

"I am not looking to drown Israel with millions of refugees to change its nature," Abbas said. "We want to put the problem on the table and find a creative solution... you will be satisfied and we will be satisfied."

The fate of the Palestinian refugees is one of the most emotional issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. Today, the number of refugees and their descendants number about 5 million people, spread mostly throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring Arab countries.

In Israel, there is a broad consensus against accepting a large-scale resettling of these refugees in any future peace deal, fearing they would dilute Israel's Jewish character.

Israeli leaders have long demanded that the Palestinian leadership publicly renounce the right of return, and say refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state or offered compensation.

In Palestinian society, though, there is an overwhelming demand for refugees to be able to return home. Abbas is himself is a refugee from what is now Safed in northern Israel, though he has said he has no intention of seeking to live there.

The refugee issue is one of the Palestinians' most important cards in the peace talks, and something that is unlikely to be addressed until the final stage of negotiations.

Taysir Nasrallah, the head of a committee representing Palestinian refugees, said "no one can concede" their rights and said Abbas' comments were politically motivated. "We will retain these rights no matter how long it would take us to achieve them," he said.

Kerry is expected back in the region in the coming weeks with a proposed outline of a final peace deal. By hosting the Israeli delegation, Abbas was attempting to reach out to the Israeli public, where skepticism about reaching an agreement remains high.

Sitting in front of a large poster of a dove soaring over the ancient walled city of Jerusalem with a Palestinian flag attached to its wings, Abbas ran through a list of oft-repeated Israeli maxims questioning the Palestinians' readiness to make peace.

Addressing a common Israeli notion that the Palestinian leader speaks moderately to Israelis and foreign leaders but takes a tougher tone with his own people, Abbas said, "We don't have two languages. We speak in one language. we have nothing to hide."

As for the common saying by Israeli leaders that the country does not have a true partner for peace, Abbas said, "I am your partner."

Israeli leaders often accuse the Palestinians of promoting incitement and hatred in textbooks and official media.