Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas shocked The New York Times with his latest speech. After years of apologizing and rationalizing Abbas’s behavior, the paper’s editorial column had enough of the 82-year-old currently serving the 14th year of the four-year term to which he was elected back in 2005. They called for his ouster and expressed the desire that his “vile words” should “be his last as Palestinian leader.”
It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. Abbas didn’t just make it clear that he viewed Israel as an illegitimate nation, but denied the validity of the ties between the Jewish people and their ancient homeland. He also engaged in Holocaust denial and blamed Nazi persecution on the behavior of Adolf Hitler’s victims, a classic trope of anti-Semitism.
The Times is right that Abbas is an obstacle to peace, and that the Palestinians need new leaders. But as bad as he is, replacing him isn’t the real problem for the Palestinians or the quest for Mideast peace. As we should have learned the last time there was a change in leadership at the P.A., the problem goes much deeper than personnel.
When Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, died in 2005, there were similar hopes about the ascension of a new Palestinian leader. The administration of President George W. Bush had, to its credit, cut off relations with Arafat and the P.A. after it responded to Israeli peace offers with a terrorist war of attrition called the Second Intifada, which resulted in the murder of more than 1,000 Israeli lives and many more Palestinian casualties.
Bush thought Arafat’s demise offered a real opportunity for peace, and he embraced Abbas. For the first time, the United States explicitly recognized the right of Palestinian Arabs to statehood. However, the only real difference between Abbas and Arafat was in their choice of apparel. Though Abbas wore a suit instead of army fatigues, he was just as reluctant to make peace, even if that meant rejecting an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. He continued Arafat’s policies of fomenting hate on official Palestinian media and in its schools. As even the Times admitted, Abbas had a long history of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. He followed the same deceptive practice of speaking one way about peace when addressing Westerners and Israelis, while speaking very differently when talking to Arab and Muslim audiences.
Just as important, Abbas was every bit as corrupt as Arafat and ran the P.A. like the mafia, rather than a government. Billions in foreign aid flowed to his family and Fatah Party cronies, setting back efforts to create economic development in the territories.
Just as the administration of former President Bill Clinton failed to hold Arafat accountable for flouting the Oslo Accords, Bush and former President Barack Obama gave Abbas—whom they falsely lauded as a moderate and a champion for peace—the same kid-gloves treatment. Abbas torpedoed the negotiations championed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 by making an end run around the talks in going to the United Nations and by choosing to try to make peace with Hamas, rather than Israel. Yet the Obama administration preferred to blame its usual punching bag—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—rather than the Palestinians. Even now, after rejecting his anti-Semitism, the Times plays the same game, blaming Abbas’s shortcomings largely on Israel.
However, the problem is that getting rid of Abbas will solve nothing. Any possible successor would be just as bad, if not worse, due to the political culture that locks all Palestinians—both within the Fatah Party or Hamas—into a position that makes peace impossible.
Anyone possible successor will be a slave to the same mindset that prevented Abbas from ever embracing peace. As long as Palestinians are more worried about suing Britain for the Balfour Declaration than building up their own institutions, and regard Tel Aviv as much an illegal settlement as the most remote West Bank hilltop caravan, Israelis know that the 100-year-old war on Zionism won’t be over.
Any new P.A. leader will also be primarily interested in competing with Hamas for Palestinian support. That’s why they’ll continue to call for the “right of return” for descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees—the focal point of the weekly demonstrations orchestrated by Hamas on the border between Israel and Gaza—which is tantamount to calling for Israel’s destruction.
If Abbas were to be succeeded by someone like Salaam Fayyad, the American-educated technocrat, there might be some hope. But the career of Fayyad, who is the darling of American columnists like the Times’s Thomas Friedman, illustrated why any hope for Palestinian reform remains futile. His term as P.A. prime minister from 2007-13 began with great hope, but ended by proving that anyone primarily interested in the economy, state-building and good governance, as opposed to terror and violence, has no future in Palestinian politics.
Throughout his tenure, Fayyad was a man without a party or a constituency among his own people. Sadly, they continue to prefer men of violence—like Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for murdering civilians during the Second Intifada—to those whose purpose is their betterment.
When the Palestinians choose a leader dedicated to peace and not conflict, only then will peace be possible. But that won’t happen if Palestinian politics are conducted in an atmosphere in which its participants only acquire credibility by engaging in violent rhetoric and rejectionism, if not actual violence, and by fueling fantasies about erasing the last 70 years of history.
As was the case with the departure of a blood-soaked terrorist like Arafat, it will be good to see the last of a hatemonger like Abbas. But until it becomes possible for someone who truly wants peace to ascend to Palestinian leadership, it won’t really matter much which Fatah or Hamas operative leads the P.A.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.