Over the past week, the Facebook pages of many journalists and activists in the West Bank were filled with comments on the hubbub caused by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday. The stormy debate revolved around a visit by some 250 Israeli university students to the Muqata’a in Ramallah, where they met with Abbas to hear a speech and ask him questions.
The criticism on Facebook about the event itself shows the depth of the rift in Palestinian society when it comes to the peace process. Abbas and his circle were the main targets for the written attacks, but the Israeli students, most of whom identify with the left, weren’t spared criticism. One Palestinian woman, a Fatah activist whose Facebook friends include Israeli peace activists, called for Arafat’s body to be exhumed and removed from the Muqata’a to a “cleaner” place — presumably one that wasn’t contaminated by Israelis.
From the Israeli side, the visit looked different, more promising. The initiative for the unusual event came from Labor MK Hilik Bar, along with PLO figures like Mahmoud al-Medeni, the man responsible for the PLO’s Israel portfolio. At times it seemed that genuine hope had somehow managed to sneak into the large conference hall, which was packed with dozens of Israeli, Palestinian, and foreign journalists alongside the students.
Abbas presented the audience with his vision for the peace process, and asserted he had made many concessions thus far in talks with Israel. Of course, he criticized Israel for insisting on building settlements, and made no mention of Israeli overtures that went unanswered when he negotiated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s predecessors, especially Ehud Olmert.
But it was more than just criticism and rebuke. It was evident that Abbas was trying to reach out to the Israeli public, going over the heads of its leaders to present a vision for peace. He tried to alleviate all the fears about the “right of return” for refugees, and emphasized that he had no intention of flooding Israel with Palestinians or changing its Jewish character.
He did insist that the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state had nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority. But he presented a ladder with which both sides could climb down from the tree called “the Jewish national state.” According to Abbas, if the UN decided to recognize Israel’s demand, then the PLO would follow suit.
And what about incitement — the poisoning of Palestinian minds against Israel? Time and again, he said, “Indeed, there is incitement.” He did not avoid the problem; he didn’t even try to claim that it was a problem that only exists in the mind of Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz or his right-hand man, Yossi Kuperwasser. Quite the opposite: “It’s on TV, the radio, in schools,” he said.
But he did duck and deflect responsibility. He said that the Palestinians have requested a three-way committee consisting of the US, Israel, and the PA in order to examine the issue of incitement on both sides — a proposal that sounds quite reasonable. But, for some reason, Israel has turned down the proposal, and insists that before the sides can discuss incitement, the PA must stop inciting. This, to Abbas at least, is unreasonable. “Have you ever read what you write about us in your media?” he asked the audience. “Or what you teach about us in your schools? I don’t want to begin swapping accusations here, but I say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’”
The refusal of the Israeli government — and primarily Steinitz, who’s responsible for the issue — to debate incitement does raise suspicions that incitement has become a rope to cling to, in order to claim there is no partner on the Palestinian side. And perhaps someone in the government is also trying to avoid an objective investigation of incitement on the Israeli side: If Israel’s media and educational system are free of slander against the Palestinians, why is the prospect of a tripartite commission on incitement so threatening to Israel?
If that is the thinking in Jerusalem, it seems misguided. Israel may not be perfect, but the strategic hostility to Israel in Palestinian media, parts of the school system, and beyond is central to the Palestinian public mindset, and Israel must surely have a prime interest in that changing.
Afterward, Abbas moved on to Steinitz’s accusation that he has become the biggest purveyor of anti-Semitism since Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped down. He chuckled a bit at that idea, the accusation sounding rather surreal at an event where he was hosting 250 Israeli students. “I know that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust,” he said, addressing claims that he has denied the magnitude of the genocide, including in his Ph.D thesis. “I have met with the leaderships of all the Jewish organizations. I recognize Israel. And they have the gall to claim that I am anti-Semitic. Anyone who says that doesn’t want peace.”
Here too, Abbas’s criticism was intelligently directed. But he could be a bit smarter and more creative in his policies. He could, for instance, initiate a declaration that might calm Israeli fears about a Palestinian change of heart the minute after a peace deal is signed. With this, Abbas could pull the rug out from under the feet of the Israeli ministers competing for attention by attacking him. But he isn’t doing this.
What’s more, while Abbas sounded like a dove Sunday in the Muqata’a, he lets other senior PLO and Fatah officials, including those who sat in the lecture hall, run their mouths in the Arabic media with extremist statements that skeptical Israeli ministers are quick to seize upon.
Take, for example, Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee who sat in the first row on Sunday, next to other committee members. Zaki hinted in December 2013 in an interview with Syrian television that an agreement based on the 1967 borders is only a step en route to the piecemeal destruction of Israel. Maybe some people will claim it was a one-time statement by Zaki. But two years earlier, he made even harsher comments in an interview with al-Jazeera that would persuade wary listeners how temporary any peace agreement could be.
But Israeli ambivalence isn’t solely rooted in concern over the statements of this or that Fatah official. The concern runs wider, and stems from a widespread Israeli perception that many Palestinians are not genuinely interested in reconciliation… and that Abbas knows this full well.
As Abbas met with the Israeli students, a demonstration was taking place outside the Muqata’a denouncing the event, and in the shadow of the Palestinian public demand to refrain from steps toward normalization.
And the coverage in the Palestinian media of his Israel outreach was wanting, to say the least — underlining its incongruity. Some Palestinian outlets (like al-Quds, the most popular newspaper) ignored the meeting entirely. Others, like the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, chose to censor anything Abbas said that could be interpreted as giving the tiniest bit of ground, such as his reassurance that “we have no intention of flooding Israel with five million refugees.” That line just wasn’t reported. In fact, for the Palestinian public reading about the meeting in local media, the impression created was that Abbas’s lecture to his Israeli visitors was actually especially combative toward Israel.
And yet, to Abbas’s credit, for a few brief moments in the Muqata’a on Sunday, with hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians present, a political solution seemed less a wild fantasy and just a little more realistic.