On Abbas, Netanyahu moves slowly from ‘No’ to ‘Yes, but’

The PM was unmoved when the PA chief condemned the Holocaust, and was critical too, at first, when Abbas weighed in against the kidnapping. But he’s changed tone, a little, this week

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have made a small but not insignificant switch this week regarding his reaction to constructive comments made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — from rejection to tacit approval, albeit with reservations.

On April 27, Abbas said the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressed his “sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.”

Not an easy step for a Palestinian leader, and one, at that, who has often been accused of Holocaust denial on the basis of his doctoral thesis. Still, Netanyahu chose not to hail Abbas’s comments.

“President Abbas can’t have it both ways. He can’t say the Holocaust was terrible, but at the same time embrace those who deny the Holocaust and seek to perpetrate another destruction of the Jewish people,” the prime minister said at the time, referring to the unity government Abbas’s Fatah party was about to form with Hamas. Abbas was merely interested in “damage control,” Netanyahu added, trying to “placate Western public opinion that understands that he delivered a terrible blow to the peace process by embracing these Hamas terrorists, and I think he’s trying to wiggle his way out of it.”

About two months later, on June 18, Abbas condemned, in Arabic, the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. “The three young men are human beings just like us and must be returned to their families,” he said, adding that those behind the abduction “want to destroy” the PA, and pledging security cooperation with Israel in the hunt for the trio. Abbas spoke these words not in an interview with the BBC or during a cozy meeting with Israeli leftists, but at a conference of Arab foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, he was attacked from Hamas and other Palestinian hardline factions. Abbas sounded like an Israeli army spokesman, one Hamas official sniped.

Netanyahu’s initial reaction? “The words of Abu Mazen will be assessed according to the PA’s efforts in trying to bring the abducted teenagers home safely, and the real test is the cancellation of the agreement with Hamas,” sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said, hours after the Palestinian leader’s Saudi speech.

Abbas could do nothing right, Netanyahu was signaling to the world. As long as he did not dismantle the Palestinian unity government, he merited not a single good word, even if he took bold steps that made him unpopular on the Palestinian street and could possibly jeopardize his personal safety.

Shimon Peres, who on Sunday branded Abbas a “great leader” and said his stance against terrorism entailed risking his life, was not the only prominent figure to indicate that Netanyahu’s response was overly churlish. Some former close colleagues of the prime minister also called his approach mistaken.

“Both of these steps are very significant and should have been answered with an appropriate response,” said Dan Meridor, a former deputy prime minister and longstanding Likud member, referring to Abbas’s statements on the Holocaust and the teens’ kidnapping. Clear responses applauding the Palestinian leader for his courageous stance were in order, he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Minister Dan Meridor at a party meeting in the Knesset in September 2011. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-minister Dan Meridor at a party meeting in the Knesset in September 2011. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The real test of a leader is saying things your public doesn’t want to hear,” Meridor told The Times of Israel. “Abu Mazen said things in Saudi Arabia that endanger his life. This was a significant and positive step, and he needs to be praised for it.”

Yoaz Hendel, who served as Netanyahu’s media advisor in 2011 and today chairs the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning think-tank, likewise said that it was a mistake for Israel’s leadership to give Abbas the cold shoulder when he makes statements that are welcomed by liberal Israelis and the rest of the world.

Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)
Yoaz Hendel (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)

“It’s a struggle of public diplomacy. It’s always better to say ‘yes, but’ than ‘no, even though.’ Still, in the end it’s a tactical question, not one of substance,” Hendel said. “Both Abbas and Netanyahu want to score points — it’s a battle for the consciousness.” While the prime minister preferred to say “no, even though” to the PA president’s overtures, Abbas had adopted the “yes, but” approach, Hendel said.

Immediately following his acknowledgment of the Holocaust, Hendel noted, Abbas condemned Israeli actions leading to the suffering of Palestinians; and right after denouncing the kidnapping, he criticized Israel’s reaction to it as exaggerated. “Abbas is doing the same thing as Netanyahu, just the other way around,” Hendel said.

In the last few days, however, Netanyahu appears to be trying his hand at the “yes, but” strategy. Asked on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday whether Abbas’s condemnation of the kidnapping wasn’t a significant step forward, the prime minister replied with a short yes and a fairly long but, yet there had been plainly been a shift: “I think it was good that [Abbas] said that, and I think it would be tested now by his willingness to stop the incitement against Israel and the glorifications of terrorists,” said Netanyahu, adding: “This would be a good departure towards that direction… And secondly, that he helps us capture the kidnappers, Hamas kidnappers, and that he breaks the pact that he made with the Hamas organization that kidnapped these teenagers. I think that would be a good development, it would be the right direction.”

On Monday, speaking to American National Public Radio, Netanyahu again said that Abbas’s Saudi Arabia statement would be tested by his actions, and repeated his demands. Still, his “yes,” this time, was a little less short. For the first time in months, indeed, Netanyahu spoke two full sentences of what could be characterized as mild praise for Abbas: “I do appreciate the statement against the kidnapping,” said the prime minister. “It’s important.”

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