Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas smeared the European Union at a private event on Monday evening, saying Brussels failed to follow through on assurances it would help Ramallah hold parliamentary and presidential elections in 2021, according to two individuals present.
“They’re animals,” he said, using the derogatory Arabic word “حيوانات” (ḥaywānāt), which can describe someone who doesn’t listen and misbehaves.
On Tuesday afternoon, Abbas’s spokesperson issued a statement flatly denying that the term was used.
While the 87-year-old Abbas has been known to use colorful language behind closed doors to express his dissatisfaction with world leaders and countries he feels have undermined the Palestinian cause, the decision to direct his anger at the EU appeared noteworthy given that Brussels has been Ramallah’s largest benefactor for years.
The latest verbal assault also comes as Abbas is particularly isolated on the global stage following a speech he gave earlier this month during which the PA leader again claimed that Hitler targeted Jews during the Holocaust because of their “social behavior,” not because of enmity toward Jews.
The Monday remarks were made at an annual meeting Abbas held with leaders of the Palestinian-American community while he was in New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The two individuals present — who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution — said Abbas shared his frustration over how the EU conducted itself vis-à-vis a recent Palestinian attempt to hold elections.
The PA president told those in the room at the Hyatt Grand Central New York that senior EU officials approached him in 2020 about holding elections for the presidency and parliament, which had not taken place since 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Abbas recalled how he told the EU officials that he was committed to holding elections but would only do so if Israel would allow balloting to take place in East Jerusalem.
Israel has long taken steps to prevent PA activity in East Jerusalem, which it considers part of its sovereign capital. The Palestinians view it as the capital of their future state.
The PA president said EU interlocutors assured him that they would press Israel on the matter.
In the meantime, Abbas issued a decree in January 2021, setting parliamentary elections for the following May and presidential elections for the following July.
Abbas told attendees of the Monday gathering that he then returned to the EU representatives, asking for an update on their talks with Israel on the matter.
The PA president said he was told that Brussels had been unable to move Israel, which at the time was being run by a caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to publicly sign off on a decision to allow Palestinian balloting to take place in East Jerusalem.
Abbas said EU officials urged him to hold elections anyway and to have Palestinians in East Jerusalem vote by mail as they have in the past.
Indeed, the EU’s former ambassador to the Palestinians recalled to The Times of Israel in an August farewell interview how he tried to convince Abbas to compromise on the issue.
“My argument to President Abbas is and remains: ‘How come you are giving Israel veto power over whether you can hold your right to political self-determination wherever and whenever you want?’” Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff said.
Abbas said Monday that he told the EU that he would not budge on the issue and lambasted Brussels for being “all talk” while failing to follow through.
“They’re animals,” he said.
Abbas announced an indefinite postponement of the elections in April 2021, citing Israel’s refusal to publicly allow balloting in Jerusalem.
However, analysts maintained that the PA president’s decision had more to do with divisions in Abbas’s Fatah and fears that Hamas would make considerable gains if elections went ahead. No makeup date has been put on the calendar since.
Notably, Abbas agreed to hold municipal elections in 2017 and 2021, even though Israel refused to allow them to take place in East Jerusalem.
A readout from the PA’s official Wafa news agency said Abbas briefed Palestinian-American leaders on “developments in the occupied Palestinian territory” as well as Ramallah’s diplomatic efforts toward statehood amid Israeli opposition.
Abbas reaffirmed the PA’s position in support of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines and thanked the Palestinian-American community for supporting the national cause, Wafa said, making no mention of the PA president’s disparaging comments toward the EU.
In his Tuesday statement denying The Times of Israel report, Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said the PA president did indeed speak about the issue of elections, “affirming the official Palestinian position to hold them as soon as possible in East Jerusalem, but he did not insult anyone in his words, nor did he use any word that insulted any party.”
“Such reports issued in the Israeli media are a continuation of the fierce campaign led by the Israeli occupation authorities against the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian narrative, which is making its way in the United States and in the world at large,” Abu Rudeinah added.
The PA president’s annual meeting with Palestinian-American leaders on the UNGA sidelines sparked controversy last year as well, after The Times of Israel obtained a recording of Abbas calling US secretary of state a “little boy” for failing to pressure Israel to make peace.
A September 2021 poll found that 80% of Palestinians want Abbas — who is currently in the 19th year of a four-year term — to resign. A growing number of leading Palestinian advocates maintain that his public and private remarks have caused harm to their national movement.