When the NY Times says Abbas is no partner, something fundamental is shifting

World response to PA head’s vile speech shows a growing awareness that peace requires Palestinian recognition of Jewish rights here. That’s not to say Israel will get a free pass

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) is welcomed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini prior to attending a EU foreign affairs council at the European Council in Brussels, January 22, 2018. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) is welcomed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini prior to attending a EU foreign affairs council at the European Council in Brussels, January 22, 2018. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The global chorus condemning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his incendiary speech on Monday, during which he blamed the Jews for their own mass murder in the Holocaust and denied any Jewish connection to the Holy Land, is largely helpful for Israeli government public diplomacy, but it does come with a caveat.

Broadly speaking, Jerusalem welcomes any statement, from anybody, criticizing the Palestinian leader, whom Netanyahu government members have long accused of duplicity, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and, perhaps most relevantly, a persistent refusal to accept the idea of Jewish self-determination anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Two days after Abbas’s speech, when the import of what he had said in a televised address before hundreds in Ramallah began to sink in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday called on the international community to “condemn Abu Mazen’s severe anti-Semitism.”

With rare alacrity, much of the world heeded his call.

Condemnations poured in, not only from the governments of Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Lithuania, but also from more unlikely quarters: the United Nations’ Middle East envoy; the European Union’s foreign policy chief; the main pro-Palestinian lobby group in Germany; even the head of UNESCO, the UN cultural agency that Israel is leaving because of its notorious anti-Israel bias.

“The utterly unacceptable remarks of President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the victims of Shoa are an inexcusable insult to the memory of the millions murdered by the Nazis and an outrageous distortion of truth,” tweeted Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. Kneissl is affiliated with the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts due to its neo-Nazi past and alleged xenophobia.

Greeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Netanyahu once more “condemned Abu Mazen’s anti-Semitic remarks and said that they reveal the true reason why there is no peace,” according to a readout provided by Netanyahu’s office.

Abbas’s remarks, the latest and worst of his inflammatory efforts at inciting anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment among his people, indeed constitute a vindicating moment from the perspective of a prime minister who has for years argued that the absence of peace is due neither to Israel’s settlement enterprise nor to any other ostensible hardline policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (C) chairs a Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah on April 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Rather, Netanyahu has stressed countless times over the years, peace has been elusive simply because the Palestinian Arabs and their leadership adamantly refuse to accept a Jewish state in any boundaries.

It is for this very reason that he repeatedly cites Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people as one of two essential pillars on which any future peace agreement must stand (the other being the demilitarization of a Palestinian state and ironclad security arrangements for Israel).

Many Western leaders, and even many centrist and left-leaning Israeli politicians, consider Netanyahu’s insistence on Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state to be an unnecessary obstacle.

But Abbas’s speech to the Palestinian National Council — in which he claimed the Holocaust was caused by European Jews’ “social behavior” including lending gentiles money for interest, and that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars and therefore have “no historical ties” to the Land of Israel — served to underline Netanyahu’s point: How can you expect Israelis to make peace with those who deny their basic connection to this land?

This has not been lost on the international community.

Abbas’s rhetoric “does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people and is deeply unhelpful to the cause of peace,” UK Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said Thursday, echoing a line articulated by other Western officials.

The international community is not about to start supporting West Bank settlements or backing the IDF’s use of live ammunition against protesters at the Gaza border. It certainly won’t abandon its support for the two-state solution Netanyahu may or may not still endorse.

But the negative response to Abbas’s remarks shows that the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not merely a dispute over real estate, and that it could be solved easily if only Israel were willing to make the required territorial concessions, is gaining traction.

Based on the statements issued, many international players are internalizing that for peace to prevail, the Palestinians must come to terms with the fact that Jews have millennia of history in this land and a right to sovereignty here that has nothing to do with the Holocaust.

When The New York Times editorializes that Abbas, by “feeding reprehensible anti-Semitic myths and conspiracy theories” has now “shed all credibility as a trustworthy partner,” something fundamental has patently begun to shift.

So why the caveat? Why does the fallout also have a partial downside for pro-Israel advocacy, for hasbara?

Because defenders of Israel’s good name can no longer easily claim that the international community is hopelessly biased in favor of the Palestinians. The automatic Arab majority in UNESCO will still be there after this Abbas controversy fades from the headlines. The UN’s anti-Israel numerical bias won’t quickly be remade. But it will nevertheless be more difficult to argue that “everyone is instinctively against us” or that the Europeans have it in relentlessly for Jews and Israel.

In January, the EU refused to condemn Abbas for saying Israel was “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism.”

“Our policy is not to comment on comments,” an EU spokesperson in Brussels told The Times of Israel at the time.

On Wednesday, by contrast, the EU denounced Abbas’s “unacceptable remarks concerning the origins of the Holocaust and Israel’s legitimacy.”

Apparently, Brussels’ policy is no longer not to comment on comments. Abbas’s rhetoric was too vicious to be left unremarked upon.

But that doesn’t mean Israel will be getting a free pass from now on. It means criticism of Israel from those many quarters that this week spoke out against Abbas might be a little harder to shrug off.

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