World News

Palestinian Leader Apologizes After Speech Prompts Anti-Semitism Uproar

Posted May 4, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2018 7:17 p.m. EDT

JERUSALEM — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority apologized Friday for any possible offense caused by a speech he made this week that was laced with anti-Semitic tropes, including the claim that the Jews of Europe brought persecution and the Holocaust upon themselves by engaging in usury and banking.

The effort at damage control came after a storm of international criticism and condemnation and calls for Abbas, who is in his 80s, to resign after his remarks to the Palestine National Council, the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“If people were offended by my statement in front of the PNC, especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them,” he said in a statement. “I would like to assure everyone that it was not my intention to do so, and to reiterate my full respect for the Jewish faith, as well as other monotheistic faiths.”

The statement, which was sent to reporters and some editors, was published in Arabic and English on the website of WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency.

In the rambling speech, delivered before a rare meeting of the council in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday night, he portrayed the Jews as having no genuine historical connection to the land of Israel and as victims not of anti-Semitism, but of their own behavior.

“The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion,” he said, “but against their social function, which relates to usury and banking and such.”

Citing Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Stalin and others, he insisted that Israel had grown out of a European colonial project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.

Citing a widely discredited book from the 1970s by Arthur Koestler called “The Thirteenth Tribe,” he posited that Ashkenazi Jews — the tradition to which about half the Jews in Israel belong, including many of those prominent in the state’s founding — were descended not from the biblical Israelites but from the Khazars, a Turkic people who converted to Judaism in the eighth century.

Condemnations of Abbas poured in from Middle East envoys of the United States and the United Nations, from Israel, the European Union and from countries including Germany and Britain.

Nickolay E. Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said such statements were “unacceptable, deeply disturbing and do not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or peace in the Middle East,” and he accused Abbas of perpetuating the conspiracy theories that fuel anti-Semitism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called Abbas a “Holocaust denier,” and the speech prompted some liberal Israelis to rule Abbas out as a partner for peace.

“No Israeli prime minister can negotiate with someone who holds views like Abu Mazen,” Shlomo Avineri, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said after the speech, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Gilad Erdan, the country’s public security minister, said on Twitter that the “apology” — he put the word in quote marks, as if to mock Abbas’ sincerity — revealed distorted thinking and political opportunism. “He should start by making it clear that his revolting remark about the reasons for the Holocaust was a racist blood libel, and simply ask for forgiveness,” he added.

The uproar over the speech by Abbas reverberated Friday at the 15-member U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, submitted a statement subject to unanimous approval describing the speech as reprehensible and calling on him to “refrain from anti-Semitic comments.” Security Council diplomats said Kuwait, a nonpermanent member, objected to the statement, arguing that Abbas already had apologized, so it failed.

Haley reacted angrily. “Disgusting anti-Semitic statements from the Palestinian leadership obviously undermine the prospects for Middle East peace,” she said. “When the Security Council cannot reach consensus on denouncing such actions, it only further undermines the U.N.'s credibility in addressing this critical issue.”

Abbas has been accused of anti-Semitism, and reversed himself on the issue, in the past. During a speech to the European Parliament in 2016, he accused rabbis in Israel of calling for their government to poison the water used by Palestinians, echoing a libel that led to the mass killings of Jews in medieval times. Barely a day later, he retracted the allegation, saying it had become “evident” that it was “baseless.”

Many critics have also pointed to Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, published as a book in the 1980s, in which he challenged the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He also argued that Zionists had collaborated with Nazis to propel more people to what would become Israel — a theme he alluded to again Monday.

But in a 2011 interview he said that he did “not deny the Holocaust” and that he had “heard from the Israelis that there were 6 million” victims, adding, “I can accept that.”

Abbas has also made some bold pronouncements condemning the Holocaust. In 2014, on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he issued a formal statement calling the Nazi genocide “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy with victims’ families, a rare gesture from an Arab leader.

Going further, he then described the Holocaust as “a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism, which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against.”

Scrambling to salvage his reputation and some semblance of the long-stalled peace process with Israel, he repeated some of those sentiments Friday.

“I would also like to reiterate our long held condemnation of the Holocaust, as the most heinous crime in history, and express our sympathy with its victims,” he said in his statement. “Likewise, we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and confirm our commitment to the two-state solution, and to live side by side in peace and security.”

But a response on Twitter from Israel’s hard-line defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, indicated that Abbas would not easily be forgiven by the Israeli government, for one.

“Abu Mazen is a wretched Holocaust denier who wrote his doctorate on Holocaust denial and then wrote a book on Holocaust denial,” Lieberman wrote. “That is how he should be regarded. His apology is not accepted.”