Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week threatened to cancel his agreements with Israel, appeared to accuse Israel and/or Jews of falsifying history and religion, and asserted that Israel does not meet the criteria for statehood and thus that the international community should reconsider its recognition of Israel.
But while American Jewish groups — including, most unusually, J Street — issued highly critical responses to the PA chief’s address in Istanbul, Israel’s leaders and officials were markedly subdued in their response, apparently preferring not to kick a man when he’s down. Having pocketed the long-coveted American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Jewish state’s leaders may have decided, for a few days at least, not to pour additional salt on Abbas’s wounds.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a relatively mild response to Abbas’s ferocious speech Wednesday at the Organization for Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s “Extraordinary Islamic Summit,” but his office chose not to directly address some of Abbas’s most incendiary rhetoric, and numerous other Israeli leaders, contacted by The Times of Israel, also chose not to comment. A rare exception was Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who in a written response, castigated Abbas for what she called his “path of lies” and for denying “the Jewish people’s connection to its land.”
The relative quiet in Jerusalem may also reflect the Trump administration’s repeatedly declared insistence — since the US president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6 — that it remains committed to brokering a landmark Israeli-Palestinian agreement, with Jerusalem careful not to make statements that might be regarded in Washington as further complicating that ambition. Sensitivities are particularly acute, furthermore, ahead of Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel next week, during which he is not now expected to visit the Palestinian territories, having been rebuffed by Abbas.
In the past, by contrast, Netanyahu has frequently issued damning criticism of Abbas’s speeches, including accusing the PA president of refusing to accept Israel in any borders, peddling lies and libels, and proving that he is no partner for peace.
In his hour-long address in Istanbul, at an emergency summit of Islamic and Arab nations convened in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, Abbas denounced the US administration, threatened to abrogate all peace agreements since Oslo, and vowed to seek full membership for the “State of Palestine” at the United Nations. While he has issued similar threats in the past, however, he also made fresh inflammatory accusations.
Notably, for instance, he declared that “there is no one better at falsifying history or religion than them,” in a comment that appeared to refer to Israel and/or Jews.
That section of his speech, translated by The Times of Israel, went as follows: “At this occasion, I don’t want to discuss history or religion, because there is no one better at falsifying history or religion than them. But if we read the Torah, it says that the Canaanites lived here before Abraham and haven’t left since that time. It hasn’t been interrupted. That’s in the Torah. If they want to fabricate, ‘to distort the words from their [proper] usages,’ as God said. I don’t want to get into religion.”
The phrase “to distort the words from their [proper] usages” is an expression directly quoted from the Quran, widely interpreted to refer to the Jews.
In another passage of his address, as translated by the Washington Free Beacon, Abbas argued that Israel does not fulfill the criteria of statehood, and urged the nations of the world to rethink their recognition of the State of Israel.
“International law says that the state must meet three conditions: authority [i.e., government], population and borders. But the third condition is not available in Israel, and I challenge it to say where its borders are. This leads us to [the conclusion] that recognizing it is invalid,” he said.
The Palestinian president was likely referring to the declarative theory of statehood, which postulates that an entity needs to fulfill certain objective criteria before it can be considered a state. According to the first article of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which has traditionally been recognized as the benchmark to determine what constitutes a state under international law, a state needs to possess the following qualifications: a permanent population; a defined territory; government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Israel has no defined borders, hence no defined territory, and therefore cannot be considered a state, Abbas seemed to be arguing.
“I wonder,” he went on, “how can world nations remain silent to these violations of international law, and how can they continue to recognize Israel and deal with it while it mocks everyone, and continues to violate the agreements signed with it, and persists in its repressive and colonialist practices, and the creation of an apartheid, and the desecration of our peoples and our Christian and Islamic sacred [places]?”
Netanyahu responded to Abbas’s speech in general terms on Wednesday.
“The Palestinians would do well to recognize reality and work toward peace, not extremism, and acknowledge an additional fact regarding Jerusalem: Not only is it the capital of Israel but in Jerusalem we uphold freedom of worship for all faiths and it is we who are making this promise in the Middle East even though no one else does and despite frequent severe failures in this regard,” Netanyahu said at an event for outstanding Mossad personnel in the President’s Residence. “Therefore all these statements fail to impress us. The truth will win in the end and many countries will certainly recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and also move their embassies.”
Queried on some of the specific passages of Abbas’s speech, however, the Prime Minister’s Office had no further comment. Likewise, the Foreign Ministry merely responded to queries by referring to Netanyahu’s comments. (Netanyahu serves as his own foreign minister.)
The Times of Israel contacted numerous politicians — including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Deputy Defense Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, and opposition leaders Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid — but they either refused to comment or did not reply.
Deputy Foreign Minister Hotovely responded in writing: “Abu Mazen [Abbas] insists to continue on the path of lies and to deny the Jewish people’s connection to its land. When the Hasmoneans returned to the Kingdom of Israel [around the year 110 BCE] no one disputed the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Land of Israel. Every stone in Jerusalem testifies to the thousand-year-old connection between the Jews and their land,” she told The Times of Israel.
“The Palestinian leadership does not work for the benefit of the Palestinians, but rather only deals with negating Israel’s right to exist,” she went on. “This way, they will continue to watch from the sidelines as Israel flourishes and thrives, while they are losing the world’s sympathy.”
Asked by The Times of Israel to respond to the passage of the speech in which Abbas appeared to accuse Jews and/or Israelis of fabricating history and religion, the PA president’s adviser on religious affairs, Mahmoud al-Habash, said Friday: “What he means is something in our faith. In the Quran. We don’t blame the Jews as Jews. We don’t consider ourselves in conflict with Judaism. You have to take the speech as a whole. From the beginning to the end. Don’t try to pick and choose some statements here and words there, trying to form something about the president.”
“Abbas is not anti-Semitic,” Habash went on. “We are Arabs. We consider ourselves to be part of the Semitic people. We don’t want to enter the religious area in the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is exactly what Abu Mazen means. We don’t fight against Judaism. We don’t fight against Jews. We are fighting against the occupation. This is our position. This is the position of President Abbas.”
Queried on who Abbas meant by “them” in the quote, “There is no one better at falsifying history or religion than them,” Habash said: “The occupiers. Any colonial occupation can do anything to convince the people, to convince the world, that he’s right, including, as you mentioned, distorting religion. This is not just for the Jews or some faiths here or there. Anybody who uses religion in the political conflict could be included in what Abu Mazen said. Anyone who uses religion for bad means in a political conflict, as Abu Mazen quoted the Quran saying, they ‘distort the words from their [proper] usages.’ It means don’t try to take the religion to bad areas in your political or personal conflict between each other. Religion belongs to God.”
Pressed on the widespread interpretation that this Quranic verse refers to Jews, or as it says “Beni Israel,” Habash said: “‘Beni Israel’ is not the Jews. The Jews are not all part of the Beni Israel. Beni Israel means the children of Yaaqub. But there are many Jews that are not part of the Children of Yaaqub. There are many Arab Jews on the Arabian Peninsula in the era of the Prophet Mohammad. I have many examples of Jews not from the Beni Israel. I advise all people, Jews and non-Jews, don’t try to use religion in this conflict with the Palestinians.
“Abu Mazen said in this speech, I don’t want to debate with them religion or history. It’s not a conflict about religious or historic narratives. The conflict focuses on the political issue. When you end your occupation of Palestinian land, everything will be ended. You will not find us in conflict with you.”
Habash said he was “sure that many of the Israeli leaders will try to take to the statements to another area and to find some words in the speech and change the meaning of the words. Don’t try. We are focusing on specific points: the occupation and our national rights.”
Regarding Abbas’s call to countries to review their recognition of the state of Israel, Habash said: “You know why Abu Mazen said this: because Israel until now doesn’t have specific borders. Any state, if you want to recognize a state, you have to recognize it within its borders. Where is the borders of Israel? Could Netanyahu himself draw the borders of Israel? If I want to recognize Israel, where are the borders to recognize? This is what Abu Mazen means. If any state wants to recognize Israel, okay, but you can recognize it in specific, well-known borders. But where are its borders? This is the question. This is not new. It’s not new.”