As welcome as the remarkably diverse condemnations of Mahmoud Abbas’s latest anti-Semitic speech have been over the last few days—with UNESCO’s new director-general, The New York Times, J Street and the German-Palestinian Association all joining the list—there’s a deeper point about the Palestinian Authority leader’s remarks to the Palestinian National Council that is still to be grasped.
Abbas, the world has finally begun to realize, has an abiding attachment to conspiracy theories about the Jews, their origins and their unnatural powers. He has demonstrated these proclivities time and again during his 13 years in power (nine of which, by the current count, are the result of his term as president being extended indefinitely in 2009).
Abbas’s mealy-mouthed apology on Friday for his PNC speech made no mention of that attachment because doing so would fatally undermine his claim that he “didn’t mean” to offend anyone with his remarks, and that he respects Judaism as he does all monotheistic religions.
Of course, the fact that a gerontocrat like Abbas actually apologized for his nasty little speech—now there’s a break with tradition—is of huge significance. But that shouldn’t obscure something more fundamental—that it is simply not possible to separate Abbas’s grotesque views about supposed Jewish culpability for the Holocaust from his equally grotesque views about the origins of the State of Israel. The demonology that is painfully visible in his views about the Holocaust is the same demonology that grounds his visceral objection to Zionism.
Abbas is perhaps the best-known exponent of the “original sin” theory of how Israel came into being. As expressed in the PLO’s founding covenant, this holds that Zionist settlers “invaded” Palestine a century ago. Their purpose was to extinguish its Arab national character so as to make way for a foreign people with no historical connection to the land. This precisely is the “original sin,” as Abbas sees it, which eventually resulted in the naqba, or “catastrophe,” of Israel’s creation in 1948.
This is also the image of Israel that informs Abbas in his periodic negotiations with Israeli officials and American envoys. This same conviction that Israel is the product of a grand deceit purveyed by Jewish impostors who manipulated and exaggerated the Holocaust pretty much explains why those negotiations invariably fail. From Abbas’s point of view, it’s impossible to negotiate in good faith with people who, in their dealings with the Palestinians, exhibit the same traits of deceit and dishonesty that got them chased out of Europe.
The newfound international consensus that these opinions are outlandish and offensive will be on firmer ground once it looks beyond the open anti-Semitism expressed by Abbas. His insistence that Israel bears sole responsibility for the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 War of Independence is no less outlandish and offensive than his view that Zionist leaders bear greater responsibility for the Holocaust than the Nazis themselves.
And yet, when Abbas speaks about the “right of return” for the 5 million descendants of the 1948 refugees—at the price of Israel’s sovereign existence—all of a sudden he becomes a statesman again. When he accuses Israel of seeking the elimination of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, his comments are reported faithfully and without comment by the vast majority of media outlets. All that feeds the impression that whenever Abbas says something outrageous about the Holocaust, he is merely expressing political exasperation—the sort of unfortunate outburst, in other words, that can be fixed with the appropriate apology. As for the rest of his statements, we carry on taking them seriously.
This transparent inconsistency has troubled many supporters of Israel for a very long time; in the wake of Abbas’s PNC speech, perhaps that’s finally starting to unravel. If so, then perhaps the right lessons will be drawn as well.
The main assumption concerns far more than Abbas himself, or indeed his eventual successor. If the peace negotiations that the Trump administration clearly desire are to bear fruit, then what is required is a new vision for Palestinian politics in a post-Abbas era that could yet dawn before President Donald Trump’s first term expires.
The United States has signaled that profound changes—for example, ending the policy of spending foreign aid on welfare payments to convicted terrorists—are expected. But that can only happen if the Palestinian leadership learns to see Israel differently, chiefly by abandoning the “original sin” theory.
That doesn’t mean the Palestinians have to stop regarding Israel as an adversary. It might even mean that Palestinian demands on such tangible matters as territory and statehood will be viewed with greater sympathy once they are finally stripped of their doctrinaire, anti-Semitic baggage. The sooner the world ends its indulgence of the “original sin” theory, the sooner they will get there.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS 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.