Palestinian Leader Incites Uproar With Speech Condemned as Anti-Semitic
Posted May 2, 2018 7:56 p.m. EDT
RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian leader’s long, rambling speech was laced with deeply anti-Semitic tropes, including that the Jews of Europe brought persecution and the Holocaust upon themselves because of usury, banking and their “social function.”
Israel, he said, grew out of a European colonial project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.
And citing a widely discredited book from the 1970s by Arthur Koestler called “The Thirteenth Tribe,” he posited that Ashkenazi Jews were descended not from the biblical Israelites but from the Khazars, a Turkic people who converted to Judaism in the eighth century.
Opening a rare gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s legislative body in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday night, Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the group and the president of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, also declared that he wanted the Palestinians to live in peace in an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But instead of stirring international sympathy for his cause, he stirred outrage. The furor following his speech underscored what many critics view as the increasing irrelevance of Abbas, now in his 80s, the bankruptcy of the organization he leads, and the chasm between his stated goal and any imminent prospect of the Palestinians achieving it.
“Such statements are unacceptable, deeply disturbing and do not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or peace in the Middle East,” Nickolay E. Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement Wednesday. “Leaders have an obligation to confront anti-Semitism everywhere and always, not perpetuate the conspiracy theories that fuel it,” Mladenov added.
“Apparently the Holocaust-denier is still a Holocaust-denier,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said, apparently referring to Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, in which he challenged the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and argued that Zionists had collaborated with Nazis to propel more people to what would become Israel — a theme Abbas alluded to again Monday.
Jason D. Greenblatt, the White House’s Middle East envoy, wrote on Twitter: “President Abbas’ remarks yesterday in Ramallah at the opening of the Palestinian National Congress must be unconditionally condemned by all. They are very unfortunate, very distressing & terribly disheartening. Peace cannot be built on this kind of foundation.”
David M. Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Abbas had “reached a new low,” adding, “To all those who think Israel is the reason that we don’t have peace, think again.”
Abbas is presiding over the first regular meeting of the Palestine National Council in 22 years. It may well be his last. (The council convened for a more limited, “extraordinary” session in 2009 to replace six members of its 18-member executive committee who had died in the meantime.)
On the eve of the four-day gathering of about 700 council delegates in Ramallah, an Abbas adviser promoted it as a historic meeting dedicated to Palestinian unity, democracy and setting strategy for the coming months and years.
It seemed to have started out as anything but that.
Instead, it was taking place with a deeply splintered Palestinian leadership that has turned away from Washington because of President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is largely disconnected from its own public. A March opinion poll found that 68 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign from office.
The Palestinian Authority has looked on while its archrival, Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has seized the popular initiative and focused international attention on the isolated and impoverished coastal enclave with its promotion of the so-called Great Return March. More than 40 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds have been wounded, many shot in the legs, by Israeli snipers over the past month during partly peaceful, partly violent protests along the Gaza border. Abbas has long advocated nonviolent popular resistance against the Israeli occupation but is also wary of protests, fearing they could spiral out of control and be detrimental to the cause, or even turn against him, according to experts.
So he has found himself in the awkward position of trying to both pay lip service to, and dampen the enthusiasm for, the Gaza protests. In his speech he warned the children of Gaza to stay away from the border fence because “I do not want a disabled generation.”
Yet the weeks ahead could prove explosive. The United States is scheduled to open its embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s foundation, in a move that has infuriated the Palestinians. The Great Return March is expected to peak on May 15, when Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of what they call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of the 1948 war when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel.
The Israeli military is bracing for a potential mass breach of its border fence with Gaza. The possible fallout in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, coinciding with the start of the holy month of Ramadan, is unpredictable.
Abbas has, in the meantime, ruled out an American monopoly over brokering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because of the embassy move, and he has already rejected Trump’s long-awaited peace plan before it has been presented, expecting less favorable terms than have been offered in past.
Aging and increasingly frail — Palestinian officials say an ambulance is now part of the president’s traveling detail — Abbas has offered few inspiring alternatives and a succession battle is already underway.
“It certainly it feels like a very low point for the Palestinian national movement,” said Nathan Thrall, director of the International Crisis Group’s Israeli-Palestinian project. “Fragmentation and weakness,” he said, “just pervades the entire meeting.”
Abbas’ speech, Thrall said, was “just a simple reflection of an embittered leader at the end of his tenure whose life project has come to failure.”
At the same time, Thrall said, appearing defiant and having the United States condemn him will not harm Abbas domestically.
The Palestine National Council had not convened for years because many Palestinians wanted to wait for a genuine reconciliation between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas, which would have granted Hamas substantial representation in the PLO. Those efforts have also failed.
Aides to Abbas said it was necessary to meet now nevertheless, to replace 103 members of the roughly 700-member council, including more than 80 who have died.
The last regular meeting took place in 1996 in Gaza, during what were considered the “good years” of the Oslo peace process, which was meant to lead to a permanent peace settlement by the end of the 20th century.
Since then Abbas has lost much of the traditional support of many Arab states and has been facing increasingly right-wing Israeli governments that are unwilling to make concessions. At an international conference organized by the PLO on the eve of the council meeting, Palestinian officials and experts spoke gloomily to a half-empty hall in a Ramallah hotel about what went wrong and bemoaned the fate of the moribund organization.
“Instead of blaming the major powers we should blame ourselves,” said Asad Abdul Rahman, a Jordan-based delegate. After the Oslo accords, he said, “We neglected the PLO and started focusing on the Palestinian Authority, and unfortunately we lost our bridges and contacts with the world.”
Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official, recounted the PLO’s journey from armed struggle to negotiations and, more recently, to an effort to internationalize the Palestinian struggle by turning to the United Nations and other bodies.
“None of them,” he said, “has liberated Palestine.”