In honoring Peres, Abbas shows leadership
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In honoring Peres, Abbas shows leadership

Op-Ed: Facing opposition at home, the PA president’s humane gesture to attend funeral shines even more, with Arab-Israeli MKs nowhere to be seen

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) sits alongside European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery during the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016. (AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) sits alongside European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery during the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016. (AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)

There are many issues one can criticize Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about: he has not directly condemned the “lone wolf” terror attacks, he does nothing to stop the incitement by senior Fatah party officials, he recently called a Jordanian terrorist a “shahid” (a martyr) and sent his family a letter of condolences, and so on and so forth.

But sometimes Abbas also deserves praise. On Friday, at the funeral of the late former president Shimon Peres, he was the only Arab leader who had the courage to show up. This was an act of political, diplomatic and personal bravery. He came with a delegation of senior Palestinian officials, knowing and understanding that the pictures published from the funeral will serve his opponents on his home turf (Fatah) and outside it (Hamas).

He came to Jerusalem even though he knew other Arab leaders — like Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or Jordan’s King Abdullah II — were not planning to attend. And even that group of MKs calling itself the Joint (Arab) List chose to stay away from the funeral of one of the people who worked harder than most to improve the circumstances of Israel’s Arab community.

Against this rabble of craven Israeli parliamentarians, Abbas not only made his way to the funeral, he also shook the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to Netanyahu’s wife Sara, and was fully attentive to the speeches of local and visiting dignitaries during the ceremony.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mt Herzl, in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

His decision, seen by some in Fatah as cowardly, stands out even more considering that Abbas’s standing among the Palestinian public has never been worse. A full two-thirds would like to see him retire. There is bad blood between him and some Fatah heavyweights like Mohammed Dahlan; as recently as Thursday, Abbas expelled four of Dahlan’s associates from the party. The PA leader’s relationship with Egypt, Dahlan’s backer, is not what it once was, as demonstrated by a recent comment by Wa’il Safti, the man in charge of the Palestinian dossier in Egyptian intelligence, who called Abbas a “camel.”

In short, Abbas, who on Thursday concluded a conference of Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee, had all the political reasons not to come to the funeral. And yet he chose to attend.

The decision to make the short trip from Ramallah to Jerusalem was not simple. On Wednesday, senior PA officials bent over backwards to avoid confirming whether Abbas would attend the funeral. It seemed clear, on Wednesday afternoon, when Palestinian news agency Wafa published a piece on Abbas sending a condolence letter to the Peres’s family, that he didn’t plan to come.

But according to Nasser a-Lahm, editor-in-chief of the Ma’an News Agency, Abbas changed his mind after receiving a phone call from Tzviya Walden, Peres’s daughter. She pleaded with him to come to the funeral, as did many other Israeli officials who urged him to come if only to convince Israelis that “there is a partner” on the other side of the security barrier.

President Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the State funeral for late former President Shimo Peres at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the State funeral for late former president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl national cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Eventually, Abbas decided to make a humane gesture on behalf of a man (and his family members) who was his partner for decades, in the limelight and outside it.

And he is paying a price.

Since his decision to attend the funeral was publicized, Abbas is being nothing less than crucified on Palestinian social media. Hamas spokespeople, predictably, are lashing out at him, but off the record, some Fatah officials are also sharing their negative opinions on his decision. A channel affiliated with Hamas published a picture of Abbas leaning forward and said he was crying for Peres. (Abbas’s associates said he was merely listening to the translation of one of the speeches.) By noon on Friday, Fatah came to and published a message supporting the decision by its leader to attend the funeral. But the damage has been done.

The mess Abbas needs to deal with at home for the “crime” of attending the funeral emphasizes to what degree the rulers of Egypt and Jordan behaved like good politicians but failed as leaders, in that they decided to send ministers in their stead.

The complexity of internal politics makes their decision understandable and perhaps forgivable. By contrast, it is hard — almost inconceivable — to understand the conduct of MKs from the Joint (Arab) List headed by Ayman Odeh. And it is appropriate, once in a while, to praise Abbas.

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