Abbas re-elected head of PLO executive amid furor over anti-Semitic speech

Palestinian leader does not address uproar regarding his comments, but Palestinian lawmakers accuse Israel and US of trying to distract attention

Illustrative: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he chairs a Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah on April 30, 2018. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI/File)
Illustrative: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he chairs a Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah on April 30, 2018. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI/File)

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee unanimously reelected Mahmoud Abbas as its leader, the PLO said early Friday, giving the Palestinian Authority president political backing amid an international uproar over remarks he made earlier this week deemed anti-Semitic.

The decision to keep Abbas as the head of the PLO’s Executive Committee came at the end of a four-day meeting by the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, the first such summit in decades. Abbas has led the PLO since the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004.

Talk has ramped up recently over a possible replacement for the 82-year-old statesman. A move by the National Council Thursday to grant the 115-member Central Council authority to assume the political body’s powers is expected to help clear the way to appointing a successor to Abbas and resolve the decade-long rift with the rival Hamas party ruling Gaza.

A statement by the council at the close of the meeting early Friday also condemned the US for plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem, rejected a peace plan being formulated by the Trump administration, and empowered the Executive Committee to rescind the PLO’s recognition of Israel.

Abbas has come under fire for a Monday speech at the start of the PNC’s days of meetings in which he appeared to blame Jews for the Holocaust, saying it was the Jews’ “social function,” including money-lending, that caused animosity toward them in Europe and led to repeated persecutions and finally the Holocaust. He also portrayed the creation of Israel as a European colonial project, saying “history tells us there is no basis for the Jewish homeland.”

The comments have been widely castigated as anti-Semitic and have led to renewed calls in some quarters for Abbas to back away from the Palestinian leadership.

On Wednesday, PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas backer, sought to claim that the content of his speech — which was televised — had been distorted by Israel, and condemned the accusations leveled at the PA leader.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, April 30, 2018. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Abbas did not address the furor during a short speech at the closing session late Thursday, according to a transcript from the official Palestinian news agency WAFA released early Friday.

In a closing statement, the PNC accused Israeli and American officials of orchestrating a campaign to accuse Abbas of anti-Semitism as a diversionary tactic.

Abbas touched on a number of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories during what he called a “history lesson” in his Monday speech, as he sought to prove the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to the Land of Israel is false.

“Their narrative about coming to this country because of their longing for Zion, or whatever — we’re tired of hearing this. The truth is that this is a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region.”

He said his arguments were backed by points made by Jewish writers and historians, including a theory often criticized as anti-Semitic that Ashkenazi Jews are not the descendants of the ancient Israelites.

He went on to claim that the Holocaust was not the result of anti-Semitism but rather of the Jews’ “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abbas’s remarks were “the pinnacle of ignorance” and that the Palestinian leader was “again reciting the most disgraceful anti-Semitic slogans.”

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial said in a statement that Abbas’ speech was “replete with antisemitic tropes and distortions of historical facts” and accused the Palestinian president of “blatantly falsifying history to the point of accusing the Jewish victims as being responsible for their own murder.”

The UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement that “leaders have an obligation to confront anti-Semitism everywhere and always, not perpetuate the conspiracy theories that fuel it.”

“Denying the historic and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land and their holy sites in Jerusalem stands in contrast to reality,” he said.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Tuesday censured Abbas, referring him by his nom de guerre and saying he had “reached a new low.”

In a tweet, Friedman added, “To all those who think Israel is the reason that we don’t have peace, think again.”

US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the region, Jason Greenblatt, also weighed in, saying Abbas’s remarks were “very unfortunate, very distressing & terribly disheartening. Peace cannot be built on this kind of foundation.”

He called for widespread condemnation of the Palestinian leader’s assertions.

The Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt on Tuesday told The Times of Israel the speech constituted “classic anti-Semitism.”

The Palestinian leader has a history of Holocaust denial. His 1982 doctoral dissertation was titled “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” and he has in the past been accused of denying the scope of the Holocaust. The dissertation reportedly claimed that the six million figure of Holocaust victims was hugely exaggerated and that Zionist leaders cooperated with the Nazis.

AP contributed to this report

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