On April 22, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, spent over an hour and a half talking to senior Israeli journalists. They had been invited to the Muqata headquarters during one of the most crucial weeks of the peace talks to serve as a direct conduit for his messages to the Israeli public.
Correspondents who took part in the meeting said that the PA head went out of his way to convey openness and transparency. He answered all their questions at length, including the most difficult ones, and presented his terms for continued negotiations. He ended his talk with a direct appeal to the Israeli public, saying, ''We want peace, we’re interested in peace, but if you humiliate us, the situation might get out of hand … we’re a partner and we want to achieve a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.” But this peaceful message was overridden by his threats to dismantle the PA, as extensively reported by the Israeli media.
Even if this was more than just a public relations stunt on Abbas' part, while conducting accelerated negotiations with Hamas on a reconciliation agreement, he doesn’t have any real chance of cracking the walls of suspicion erected in recent years around the Israeli public, with its leader reiterating again and again that “There’s no partner.” Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, Abbas has become the preferred punching bag of politicians on the Israeli right, chief among them Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Before deciding to change his style and moderate his tone, Liberman used to bash the PA chairman on a regular basis, claiming he was a lame duck devoid of any political power and that there was no point in talking to him.
Statements by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also helped nurture the narrative of Palestinian recalcitrance and Abbas' weakness. Olmert recounted that he had conveyed a far-reaching proposal to Abbas “that had never before been proposed by any prime minister in Israeli history,” and which included the division of Jerusalem. Olmert claimed at the time that Abbas disappeared and never got back to him. Olmert did not mention the fact that at the time he presented the Palestinians with this proposal, he himself was already a lame duck. A few months later, he resigned from office in the face of a multitude of criminal charges.
Olmert’s words were reminiscent of what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in 2000, after the talks at Camp David broke down — that there was no partner in the PA. In both cases, the effect of these messages on the public and on the media in Israel was instantaneous and powerful. Many Israelis lost hope after decades of exhausting attempts at negotiations, opting to push aside the issue of the conflict and focus on their economic survival.
Politicians from the left and center also contributed over the years to the sense that Abbas is not at all interested in a peace agreement with Israel. At the head of this list are former Labor chair and Knesset member Shelley Yachimovich and the chairman of Yesh Atid, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose campaigns during the last elections made blatant appeals to the right wing and the settlers. As a result, there was no one left who could try to present the Palestinian leader in a more positive light.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor, former Deputy Minister of Defense Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Sneh argued that Abbas has no hope of changing his image among the Israeli public because he faces the “well-oiled propaganda system of the Israeli regime and there is no one to counter it.” According to Sneh, “We’re at a point where no one listens to Abbas at all, because the right wing of [Deputy Defense Minister] Danny Danon and [Knesset member Orit] Strock has managed to take over the public discourse."
Former Labor party Minister Efraim Sneh at his office, 2014
The text of the interview follows:
Sneh: The Israeli public has undergone brainwashing in recent years, so that even if Abbas says something right, no one listens to him. This, in my view, is more of a failure of the opposition than an achievement by the government. I’m going to say something harsh, and I don’t care if I’m attacked for it: The propaganda and brainwashing that the Israeli public has undergone on the Palestinian issue are Goebbelsian in style [remeniscent of the Nazi propagandist]. This is Goebbelsian propaganda.
Al-Monitor: Isn't this an exaggeration?
Sneh: I mean what I say. The people in Israel are brainwashed. They’ve simply been led to despair of peace and told that Mahmoud Abbas is the next thing after Antiochus. The anti-Palestinian propaganda is Goebbelsian propaganda. That’s the way it is. If an Israeli government minister says about Mahmoud Abbas that he’s the leader of the greatest terrorism on earth, what can one say? As we know, it was Abbas who, in the second intifada, spoke out very courageously against the violence and against [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat. He has traditionally objected to violence. So the minute the public hears more and more of these things, it trickles down.
This is propaganda that has caused the Israeli public to despair. It has led to despair. On the other hand, it’s also dormant, because there’s no terrorism. The security forces are doing a good job.
Al Monitor: And the media cooperated?
Sneh: Most of it was part of this brainwashing. Here’s a recent example: On Friday night, April 4, [Fatah senior official] Jibril Rajoub goes on Israeli TV Channel 2 and tries to convey a message of moderation. He speaks Hebrew and appeals directly to the Israeli public. And what happens? All those sitting in the studio attack him rudely and indiscriminately. It was shameful. [Anchorman] Danny Kushmaro turned into an inquisitor. What’s the deal with them? I would have expected a modicum of civility. I don’t remember any interviewee being assailed this way. They allowed themselves to do so because they know it’s the fashion in Israel. What comes out of this? The whole government propaganda machine paints the best partner we have ever had in the worst negative light, and the media cooperates.
Al-Monitor: What do you think is the true situation, the one that the Israeli public doesn’t get to hear?
Sneh: No one says these things, but the situation is the opposite of what is presented by the Israeli propaganda. Mahmoud Abbas deeply wants to reach an agreement because he’s in an ideal position to do so. Hamas is today the biggest enemy of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates; Syria has been riven by a terrible war and Hamas has been expelled from there. This is an ideal situation. Contrary to the way he’s portrayed, Abbas is not weak.
Al-Monitor: The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas — doesn’t it reshuffle the cards? Right afterward, Israel suspended the talks.
Sneh: This unimportant reconciliation is meaningless, and the experts know it. Because when Egypt designates Hamas a terrorist organization, Abbas is the one to pick [Hamas Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh and [Hamas political bureau chief] Khaled Meshaal off the floor.
Abbas made a confrontational and stupid move. It calms his street, and I can understand that. But what happens in the meantime? On the one hand, there will be no reconciliation — and Bibi [Netanyahu] knows it as well — and on the other hand, Abbas gave him the excuse he’s been looking for. I think the government is actually scared Hamas will collapse, because then, the moderates will come, Mahmoud Abbas and [former Fatah senior official Mohammed] Dahlan.
Al-Monitor: Isn’t this too conspiratorial?
Sneh: Perhaps it sounds that way. But think of this: If someone in Jerusalem had really meant to reach an agreement, he would have sat down with Abbas a long time ago. They could have gone for a coordinated move and brought down the Hamas regime in Gaza.
Al-Monitor: And Mahmoud Abbas' mistakes?
Sneh: His big mistake is that he walked with his head held high into the trap set by Bibi with the demand for recognition of a Jewish state. After all, Arafat already recognized the Jewish state. Of course, the reconciliation with Hamas now is also a wrong move.