RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Addressing a sticking point in U.S.-brokered peace talks, President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday dismissed charges by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he wanted to “flood” Israel with Palestinian refugees.
Abbas spoke to about 300 Israeli students in the West Bank city of Ramallah two weeks before Netanyahu meets President Barack Obama in Washington as an April deadline looms in negotiations for a two-state solution.
He said the Palestinians wanted to keep alive the refugee issue in the talks resumed after a three-year freeze in July under U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s tutelage, to ensure a resolution of the rights of Palestinians who fled or were driven away during 1948 hostilities when Israel was founded.
“But we do not seek either to flood Israel with millions (of refugees) or to change its social composition,” Abbas said.
His comments were seen as his clearest suggestion yet he might accept Israel’s demands that refugees be permitted to “return” only to a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu had accused Abbas in January of being unwilling accept that Israel should not be “deluged” by refugees as part of a deal under negotiation to achieve Palestinian statehood in land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.
Reiterating his insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state - a demand Abbas has rejected - Netanyahu had said: “Otherwise what we are being asked to do is allow the establishment of a Palestinian state ...which will try to flood us with refugees”, undermining Israel’s own existence.
Despite the signs of possible progress on the refugee issue, though, the sides still seemed far apart on other disputes such as the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel has made a part of its capital and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.
With both Netanyahu and Abbas facing pressure from respective political allies against making concessions on core issues, Kerry has said he hopes to publish a framework or possible blueprint for an eventual peace agreement.
Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alistair Lyon