Why the mastermind behind Leon Klinghoffer’s murder went free

Click photo to download. Caption: A scene from the Metropolitan Opera's "The Death of Klinghoffer." Credit: Richard Hubert Smith/Metropolitan Opera.
Click photo to download. Caption: A scene from the Metropolitan Opera's "The Death of Klinghoffer." Credit: Richard Hubert Smith/Metropolitan Opera.

Amid the ongoing controversy over the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” little has been said about the Palestinian leader who masterminded the attack in which Leon Klinghoffer was murdered.

The decision to hijack the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 was made by Muhammad Zaidan, also known as Muhammad Abbas or Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Front. (Not to be confused with his comrade-in-arms Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority.)

Four of Abu Abbas’s agents seized the ship, terrorized the passengers, and murdered the wheelchair-bound, 69 year-old Klinghoffer. They also demanded the release of 50 Palestinian terrorists being held in Israeli prisons. When the Israelis refused to negotiate, Abbas’s gang forced the ship to sail to Egypt. The Egyptian government arranged for them to flee by plane, but the U.S. air force intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Italy. The Italians, however, refused to extradite the terrorists to America, and instead put them on trial. All four were convicted, but two were set free in just six years; the other two were released in 2008 and 2009.

What about Abbas, the man who was ultimately responsible for the hijacking and murder? The Palestinian leadership rallied around him. His Palestine Liberation Front remained part and parcel of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat’s foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi, accused Mrs. Marilyn Klinghoffer of murdering her husband for insurance money. Abbas himself offered an alternative explanation, at a press conference in Algeria in 1988: “Maybe he was trying to swim for it.”

With Arafat’s endorsement, Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Front continued carrying out terrorist attacks. In fact, it was Arafat’s refusal to condemn a Palestine Liberation Front attack in 1990 that prompted President George H.W. Bush to rescind his earlier recognition of the PLO. After the 1990 attack, Abbas disappeared from public view. The U.S. government issued a warrant for his arrest and offered a $250,000 reward for his capture. The hunt was on.

But then Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, and the hunt was called off. The Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO became the centerpiece of the Clinton administration’s Mideast policy. Arafat, chairman of the new Palestinian Authority, was proclaimed to be “moderate” and the leaders of various PLO factions, such as Abbas, tagged along. In early 1996, Abbas surfaced in PA-controlled Gaza—yet the Clinton administration did not ask the PA to extradite him to stand trial for the murder of Klinghoffer.

The U.S. Senate responded by voting, 99-0, for a resolution asking President Clinton to request Abbas’s extradition. The administration declared that it was too late—the statute of limitations on extraditing him had expired. But the Congressional Research Service examined the law and concluded that, in fact, the statute had been suspended because Abbas was a fugitive from justice.

The law didn’t matter. President Clinton dug in his heels, refused to take action against Abbas, and hoped nobody would notice. And he was right. Journalists stopped asking about Abbas. Jewish leaders moved on to other issues. The senators who voted for the resolution were not prepared to take stronger action, such as cutting off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas lived freely in Gaza, while traveling often to Baghdad, a longtime center of his terror activities. Then, in 2003, Abbas was captured by U.S. troops that were stationed in Iraq in the aftermath of the war there. The “moderate” PA was furious and demanded his release; PA spokesman Saeb Erakat said that the Oslo accords prohibited the prosecution of anyone involved in terrorism before 1993. (In fact, the U.S. is not a signatory on the Oslo accords and the accords say nothing about the U.S. prosecuting anybody.)

But Abbas managed to cheat justice yet again—11 months after his capture, he died of natural causes while still in American custody in Iraq.

So, one might ask, why didn’t President Clinton want to prosecute Abbas? For the same reason he never asked the PA to hand over the terrorists involved in the murder of my daughter Alisa in 1995, or any other Palestinian killers of American citizens—because it would anger the Palestinian leadership and upset the “peace process.”

Clinton never seemed to realize that peace negotiations have no meaning if the Palestinian side still regards terrorists as heroes and is angry if they are prosecuted. The Palestinian leadership always regarded Klinghoffer’s killers—and Alisa’s killers—as heroes. They never sincerely renounced terrorism and they never viewed terrorists as bad guys. And that’s why the peace process—whether it be Bill Clinton’s peace process, George W. Bush’s peace process, or Barack Obama’s peace process—has never resulted in peace.

On many occasions in recent years, Clinton has expressed regret that he refused to act against the genocide in Rwanda. One wonders how long it will take him to express some regret that he refused to act against Palestinian terrorists whose own genocidal campaign has claimed so many innocent victims.

Stephen M. Flatow lives in New Jersey; his daughter Alisa was murdered in an April 1995 Palestinian terror attack at Kfar Darom. 

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