In a recent interview with Israeli television, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed that Palestinians have no claims on the territory that became the state of Israel following the 1948 war, and that he does not believe he has either the right or the interest in returning to live in his home village, Safed, which is in Israel. The comments were angrily attacked by Hamas and small, far left-wing Palestinian groups, and derided as irrelevant by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But most engaged Israelis and Palestinians are well aware that Abbas was merely reiterating things that he had said many times in the past and wasn't breaking any new policy ground.
Outside of the Middle East, however, Abbas's remarks appear to have created a great deal of confusion, as have clarifying statements issued both by him and other Palestine Liberation Organization officials explaining that the Palestinian position on the refugee issue has not, in fact, changed. Here's a basic summary of where the Palestinians stand on the refugee issue and peace with Israel.
The fundamental Palestinian position is that the refugee issue is one of the four final status issues identified by the parties in the Oslo agreements of 1993. They are therefore to be determined by negotiation, and not by unilateral acts or statements by either party. This is the American position, and that of the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., E.U., U.N. and Russia). It is also, importantly, the official Israeli position, even though Israel has been seeking end-runs around it such as demanding Palestinians recognize the "Jewish character" of the Israeli state, or raising the issue of Jewish refugees and migrants from Arab states. Obviously the Palestinians and Israelis have very different opinions about how the Palestinian refugee question should be resolved in final status talks. But they are formally committed to dealing with them in that context.
Legally speaking, the Palestinians have a powerful case under international law for the right of return not only of refugees that were expelled or fled and prevented from returning in 1948 or 1967, but also their descendents. However, from the outset of the talks, serious negotiators, including the late President Yasser Arafat, understood that there was no possibility of compelling Israel to accept any agreement that allowed millions of Palestinians the option of potentially returning to the Israeli state and eliminating or greatly undermining the Jewish majority within Israel's internationally recognized boundaries.
The fundamental principle of all negotiations between the parties since Oslo has been that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. There have therefore been many different conversations and trial balloons floated between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinians and Israelis have wrangled over the numbers of Palestinians who might be allowed the option of returning, with Israel seeking to keep the sum to a minimum and package it under an alternative rubric such as "family reunification," and Palestinians seeking a higher number but not one that would alter the essential demographic structure of Israeli society.
The problem facing the Palestinian leadership is that refugee issues are one of the few articles of real leverage they have left in dealing with Israel. But they are also a shibboleth of the Palestinian national narrative and a very politically costly, albeit necessary, compromise if there is to be a peace agreement.
They therefore cannot afford to "give up" the issue in advance of an agreement with Israel, particularly if they are going to have any hope of getting an Israeli compromise on their own most difficult concession, an agreement regarding Jerusalem. On the other hand, Palestinian leaders clearly need to do more to prepare their people for the necessary and inevitable compromise on return, just as he Israeli leadership needs to prepare its people for a compromise on Jerusalem (which Olmert was indeed discussing with Abbas).
It looks like dissembling and confusion, and sometimes there is an element of that in Palestinian rhetoric about refugees and Israeli rhetoric about Jerusalem. But there is also the real conundrum of not giving anything away in advance for nothing, versus preparing your public for a painful and politically difficult compromise. Abbas's remarks on Israeli television should be understood as a useful step forward in psychological preparation, which is why he was so savagely attacked by anti-peace factions. On the other hand, the backtracking and clarifications obviously undermined that.
What's needed is bold, consistent, farsighted leadership from Israeli and Palestinian politicians alike, telling their people in no uncertain terms that they will have to compromise on cherished aspects of their national narratives. Israelis will have to compromise on Jerusalem. Palestinians will have to compromise on refugees. Nobody should expect either of them to make concessions gratis, but everyone should insist that, when the time comes, they do compromise.