Abbas scores own goal as fiery speech backfires

Abbas’s outrageous statements put him in hot water with both the UN and the EU.
Thursday 03/05/2018
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on April 30. (Reuters)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on April 30. (Reuters)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas thought he was hitting all the right notes during his speech April 30 but about halfway through his nearly 2-hour address, he took a wrong turn that offended his backers before his foes.

Abbas started his address to the Palestinian National Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah by quoting the Quran and interpreting it in relation to today’s Palestinian cause, saying that the path to an independent state is through the virtue of patience.

It is common for secular politicians in the Arab world to dabble in theological rhetoric to not cede ground to their Islamist foes in the competition for hearts and minds.

Abbas then took aim at critics who wanted the gathering to be in Gaza, Lebanon or the United States.

“Why all that when we have a homeland… where we can speak freely? I dare anyone to stay they were prevented from saying a single word… We have the freedom to speak here, in our country, more than any place,” said Abbas. And freely he did speak, although some would argue his critics in the West Bank are not offered the same luxury.

'Your tongue is loose'

“Some of them wanted to have the meeting in Lebanon,” said Abbas, without giving details. “I don’t want to go on because people will say ‘you keep swearing and insulting, your tongue is loose’ but [I say] these people are on the payroll of some countries.”

That was ironic because the Palestinian Authority itself relies on foreign funding, most notably from the European Union.

Mindful of a previous lash out at Washington, during which he branded US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a “son of a dog,” Abbas deliberately made a point of not using foul language.

“Four months ago we were surprised by a decision by the US administration, however, we will not be swearing… [I will use] soft words: We were surprised by a decision by our brothers in the US administration,” said Abbas, drawing laughter and applause from the audience, before adding “to shut down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington.”

The Palestinian leader protested that the US Congress regards the PLO as a terror organisation despite visits from three US presidents to the West Bank.

'I don’t see it, my eyesight is weak'

“We have 83 agreements with 83 states, including the United States, to fight terror wherever it is… We do not believe in terror, we believe in peace but that doesn’t mean we get slapped,” said Abbas. “They (the Americans) kept saying that we have a deal. We kept asking where is it? I don’t see it, my eyesight is weak, show me. In the end, we found out that the deal is the slap that ends peace.”

He said if the deal does not include East Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees or an end to illegal settlements, “then what is left?”

Abbas did not miss the opportunity to criticise Hamas, which he blamed for the assassination attempt of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza in March. “I said I’m sure the French were behind it,” Abbas said mockingly.

The Palestinian leader did half-heartedly say some good words about Hamas.

“I heard Hamas talk about the popular peaceful resistance in Gaza and that is a good thing,” said Abbas, before adding that “before [Hamas] used to accuse such people of being spies.”

“Thank God they are finally convinced. I don’t know to what extent, but all of them are talking about the popular, peaceful resistance. It is effective but I tell you in honesty, keep the children away from (Israel’s) shooting range…We don’t want to become a people of disabilities,” said Abbas.

Abbas insisted that the Palestinian Authority must have full control of Gaza if there is going to be reconciliation with the Islamist group.

“No self-respecting state has two authorities,” said Abbas. He insisted on having full authority in Gaza and “not one that includes (Hamas keeping their) militias.”

Back to 2006 elections 

The Palestinian leader presented Hamas with a carrot and a stick: If they don’t cooperate, he would stop paying money to Gaza. “We pay $125 million monthly. They either accept or reject,” he said.

Hamas could take part in elections, which he said would be — as in 2006 — free and fair. “If you win in the legislative or presidential elections, we won’t hesitate to hand over power to you within 5 minutes,” promised Abbas.

Reassuring words except that Hamas-Fatah rift was widened soon after the 2006 elections. What are the safeguards this time around?

Abbas sang the praises of Saudi Arabia for supporting the Palestinian cause and naming the last Arab League summit in the kingdom “the Jerusalem summit.” He said that after the strong pro-Palestinian statement Saudi King Salman bin Abdulazzi Al Saud made at the summit, he felt he had nothing to add.

He stressed that Saudi Arabia stands with the Palestinian cause and not by Israel. “We hear lots of rumours. Trust me, don’t believe them. This is not the Saudi position,” he said.

Arab Spring 'invented by America'

Although Abbas said that he would not be taking sides in disputes between Arab countries, he expressed distrust for the popular uprisings in the region in 2011. “The ‘Arab spring’ is a lie invented by America,” he said.

Abbas boasted that the Palestinian cause has the support of the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union and the United Nations. He reiterated his call for an internationally backed two-state solution.

He said that 705 resolutions by the UN General Assembly and 86 others by the UN Security Council were flouted by Israel.

He mentioned that the speech by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini at the Arab summit in Dhahran matched his views.

Outrageous statements by Abbas

However, Abbas’s outrageous statements on the persecution and massacres of Jews across centuries in Europe — including the Holocaust — have put him in hot water with both the United Nations and the European Union.

Abbas said hatred against Jews “was not because of their religion” but rather due to “their social profession” in Europe, citing usury and banks as examples.

“Some will say why bring up history but we must understand history to understand the present and the past,” he said. Except what he said wasn’t history nor should it be part of the war of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Leaders have an obligation to confront anti-Semitism everywhere and always, not perpetuate the conspiracy theories that fuel it,” UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. “Denying the historic and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land and their holy sites in Jerusalem stands in contrast to reality.”

The European Union said Abbas’s speech “contained unacceptable remarks concerning the origins of the Holocaust and Israel’s legitimacy.”

“Such rhetoric will only play into the hands of those who do not want a two-state solution, which President Abbas has repeatedly advocated,” EU’s diplomatic service said in a statement.

“Antisemitism is not only a threat for Jews but a fundamental menace to our open and liberal societies. The European Union remains committed to combat any form of anti-Semitism and any attempt to condone, justify or grossly trivialise the Holocaust.”

These are statements from backers of the Palestinian Authority.

In his speech, Abbas expressed his wish to work with pro-peace Israelis — as opposed to the current Israeli government — but his offensive remarks will mean few are likely to take up his offer in a hurry.

In addition to insulting the memory of Jewish victims of European fanaticism and fascism in past centuries, Abbas did a great disservice to Palestinian victims of Israel’s occupation today.