Abbas Tells Students 'Peace Has To Happen'

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech and took questions from 200 Israeli students bussed to Ramallah for the occasion. Arranged by a pro-peace Knesset member, it's a rare chance for public give-and-take — both on the potential for peace and the success or failures of the Palestinian Authority's leadership through Israeli eyes.

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The West Bank city of Ramallah is normally off-limits to Israelis by Israeli law. But yesterday, 300 Israeli college students and other young leaders, with special permission from the military, traveled to Ramallah to hear Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speak. An Israeli politician organized the unusual gathering, calling it a chance for Israelis to get to know what many of there see as their enemy.

NPR's Emily Harris reports.


EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Mahmoud Abbas got a standing ovation when he entered the crowded room at Palestinian Authority headquarters. Abbas welcomed the audience as future Israeli leaders.

MAHMOUD ABBAS: (Through Translator) I'm sure that in a few years you'll be representatives in parliament. And if, God forbid, peace has not been achieved by then, you will establish it. Peace has to happen.

HARRIS: Abbas stressed several times during his speech that now is the time to reach a peace deal.

ABBAS: (Through Translator) I hope you won't push young Palestinians of your generation to the point of despair, to the point of not believing in peace. No one knows what will come then.

HARRIS: Palestinians and Israelis restarted peace negotiations last summer, led by Secretary of State John Kerry. There is little public evidence of progress, but there have been plenty of accusations of ill intentions by both sides. President Abbas used this session with young Israelis to counter what he called propaganda about his positions on some sensitive topics, including the fate of Palestinians who lost land and homes in wars with Israel.

ABBAS: (Through Translator) The propaganda says I want to bring five million Palestinian refugees back to destroy the State of Israel. All we have said is let's put the refugee issue on the table. This issue must be solved in order to end the conflict. But despite what is reported in Hebrew and other media, we do not seek to drown Israel with millions of refugees.

HARRIS: Event organizers said audience members came from a range of political views, but many seemed to already hold liberal positions. Eli Oren, studying political science, said he was thrilled to hear Abbas first-hand.

ELI OREN: To sit in one room, in Ramallah, I think none of my friends actually believed us that we were going to be here. And I think most of the issues, I think, I totally agreed with him. I was very happy to be in this, I think, historical moment.

HARRIS: Some felt Abbas dodged difficult questions. But audience member Ateret Horowitz said this wasn't really a day to press Abbas. She hoped the visit would show her government, the Israeli side, that many Israeli voters support Abbas and really want the conflict with Palestinians solved.

ATERET HOROWITZ: We all really, really want this to happen and believe in this. And I feel like I wouldn't even want to ask, like, the challenging or the difficult questions because I want this to, like, strengthen me in my beliefs. And it's a way to put pressure on our government also.

HARRIS: Pressure at least to reciprocate, she said, and invite Palestinian students to question Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later, perhaps, pressure to reach a peace deal.

Emily Harris, NPR News.

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