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Mahmoud Abbas’s desperate gesture

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 28, 2015. Credit: U.N. Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 28, 2015. Credit: U.N. Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

By Ben Cohen/

It’s been a long time since I saw a gesture this desperate.

At the recent Arab Summit in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, the Palestinian Authority (PA) foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, announced that his boss, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, had asked the Arab states prepare a legal case against Britain in retaliation for the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The Balfour Declaration, which took the form of a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Zionist leader Lord Rothschild, confirmed Britain’s favorable view of a “national homeland” for the Jewish people in Palestine, which came under British control towards the end of World War I. For that reason, the PLO’s National Covenant dates the beginning of the “Zionist invasion” to 1917—any Jews who arrived in the land after that date are considered to be illegal settlers.

These days, that’s basically every Jew in Israel.

Of course, Abbas has been able to get away with this kind of incitement many times in the past, so there was no reason for him to expect any moral condemnation from Western leaders. Had he stuck to denying the link between Jews and the city of Jerusalem, or named another public square after a terrorist, he would probably have been spared the ridicule which has greeted his tactical error of going after the British—and therefore going too far.

Similarly grandiose gestures by Abbas in the past, for example his failed to campaign for international recognition of a Palestinian state outside of negotiations, have also gone south, so it should be no surprise if his threat to sue the Brits comes to naught. Within a couple of days of Maliki’s Nouakchott announcement, British diplomats were reporting their Palestinian counterparts telling them that there was no substance behind it.

Yet given that Abbas has been fixated on gesture politics for several years now, substance may not be the point here. Rather, it’s to remind the world that the Palestinian question has not been resolved, and no matter what happens in the coming years—a Donald Trump presidency, thousands more refugees fleeing the atrocities in Syria, terrorist attacks in Europe on a weekly basis, Iran flouting the nuclear deal—the peace the world craves will not come without the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Abbas’s woes are compounded by the fact that among the Arabs themselves, never mind the rest of the world, the worthiness of the Palestinian cause is diminishing. The combined threats of Iranian ascendancy and Islamist barbarism have drawn Arab states from Egypt to Saudi Arabia further into Israel’s orbit. One senior Israeli army office even volunteered to a reporter for The Economist: “The Egyptians now are more anti-Hamas than even we are. They’re actually pressing too hard now on Gaza.”

Even if this remark is slightly overstated, the Arab drift away from the Palestinians is unmistakeable. Abbas’s PLO fears that Israel’s ultimate goal is formalize peace with the Arab states without creating a Palestinian one in the process. This view seems to be shared in the Palestinian street. A recent poll among Palestinians found 78 percent of them acknowledging that their cause is no longer the leading priority in the Arab world, with another 59 percent angrily accusing the Arab states of allying with Israel against Iran.

But much the regional balance tilts against the Palestinians, there is precious little internal reckoning going on. The implications that accompany the difficult truth that they could have achieved meaningful statehood in the last days of Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, were it not for the intransigence of the late Yasser Arafat, are still to be grasped. The West Bank and Gaza are still split between Fatah and Hamas, with both factions gaining in unpopularity. And yet rather than tearing up the old playbook, the Palestinians persist in advancing initiatives that question their own commitment to the two-state solution they insist the Israelis are wrecking.

Like the BDS campaign and the other campaigns ostensibly focused on securing justice for the Palestinians, Palestinian diplomacy has become just another vehicle for sullen grievance politics that bear little correspondence to the historical record. Anyone who examines British policy in Mandatory Palestine will find numerous episodes that undermined the Balfour Declaration’s intentions towards the Jews. Pressure from Arab leaders meant that in 1939, at just the time that the need for a Jewish “national homeland” had never been greater, Britain decided to limit Jewish immigration to 75,000 during the next five years, with any future immigration requiring explicit Arab consent. In the years immediately after the Holocaust, British soldiers imprisoned, beat, and deported thousands of Jews who had escaped from the killing fields and concentration camps of Europe.

When the British finally threw in the towel on their mandate, the Arab states faced the choice between diplomacy and war. They chose the latter, and the consequences are still with us today, feeding the notion—expressed here by Sir Vincent Fean, a former British consul-general in Jerusalem, in an interview with The Guardian—that Abbas’s threat to sue the British was “a cry of anger and despair rather than a statement of intent…the problem is that the two-state solution that he has advocated and argued for for so long is rapidly drifting away.”

But depicting the Balfour Declaration as a crime against the Palestinians suggests the opposite: that Abbas still cannot stomach the idea of legitimizing Zionism. As Maliki, his foreign minister, put it, the Balfour Declaration “gave people who don’t belong there something that wasn’t theirs.”

There we have it, a tired staple of Palestinian propaganda—denying Jewish indigeneity— recycled yet again. The conclusion that the Palestinian leadership prefers continued Israeli occupation over an independent state is becoming inescapable.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of“Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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