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Why the Palestinian president shocked his people over 'right of return'

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Within a day after the Friday broadcast of the interview, Palestinians in Gaza – controlled by rival faction Hamas – burned posters of Mr. Abbas which were labeled as "traitor," and Mr. Abbas was forced to do damage control by telling Arabic language newspapers that he had only spoken on a personal level and there had been no change in the Palestinian position.

"What he said in the interview that was so hugely important to Palestinians was that 'I don’t have a right to return to my home.' If you were to take that literally, then that would mean that he is waiving the right of return entirely and there would be no negotiations," says Nathan Thrall, a Middle East expert for the International Crisis Group who focuses on the Palestinians. "It's the center of the entire conflict in the Palestinian view."

Though Mr. Abbas’s seeming concession is viewed as slip of the tongue, many also say it is a rare public acknowledgement that he will compromise on such a difficult issue. Indeed, in negotiations that took place in 2008, the Palestinians requested a right of return for 15,000 refugees a year to Israel over 10 years, according to the International Crisis Group. In 2001, negotiators discussed giving Palestinians monetary compensation and the option to refugees abroad of moving to the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli doves cited it as proof that Abbas is Israel’s best hope to negotiate an accord, contrasting it with his portrayal by Israel's government as a leader who prefers to insist on preconditions rather than negotiate. But as Israelis gear up for January Parliamentary elections, the moribund talks with the Palestinians have been overshadowed this year by Iran and a debate over Israel's economy. Some accused Abbas of meddling in the election with his remarks. 

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