The April 30 address by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian National Council's (PNC) opening session caught many off guard. In his two-hour discourse, Abbas was keen to reiterate what he already said in previous speeches, defend his policies and justify his actions.
The 83-year-old Palestinian leader seemed relaxed and happy to have succeeded in accomplishing what many thought was almost impossible. Abbas’ address followed the counting of present members to ensure that there is a quorum of two-thirds in the PNC session, which was broadcast live on Palestine TV. In fact, 605 out of the 741 members attended the meeting. The Palestinian leader felt vindicated to say that it is a “unique” event that 83% of the PNC members are present. He said that had the case been different or had the quorum been absent, the legitimacy of the PLO would have been questioned.
The long, rambling speech, laced with colloquial phrases and attempts to contradict historical narratives, might be old-school Palestinian. This, however, has become Abbas’ signature in his speeches, which is perhaps an indication that he is thinking of his own legacy.
During the PLO Central Council’s meeting Jan. 15, Abbas lashed out at US President Donald Trump for his Jerusalem decision and his attempts to financially punish Palestinians by forcing them to negotiate with Israel. Abbas used the colloquial Palestinian phrase "Yekhrib Beitak" — which is literally translated as "May your house be destroyed," the equivalent of "Damn you" in English — to condemn the US policies and claims that Palestinians oppose negotiations. “Since when have we refused to negotiate? I went to Washington four times to negotiate, and I am willing to negotiate even this so-called ultimate deal. It is a shame,” he told the Central Council’s delegates.
Abbas also used colloquial language in his address before Palestinian leaders in Ramallah following the failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah March 13. He called US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman "ibn kalb" (son of a dog) while speaking of Friedman's support for Israeli settlement activities: “This son of a dog says that Israelis are building on their own land.” Friedman, who was known before his appointment for financially supporting the Beit El settlement, replied that Abbas crossed the line. During an anti-Semitic conference in Jerusalem on March 22, Friedman asked — in reference to Abbas' remarks — “Anti-Semitism or political discourse? I leave this up to you."
While Abbas’ earlier remarks were upsetting for US and Israeli officials, the historical perspectives mentioned by the Palestinian president in his April 30 speech produced even more angry reactions.
Abbas, whose studies in Moscow focused on the situation of Jews in Europe, delved into the Israeli and Jewish narratives and argued that these narratives eventually affected Palestinian aspirations for freedom on their land.
In a blistering diatribe, Abbas reached back into history in an attempt to convince his audience that the search for a Jewish homeland was not necessarily part of the “longing for Zion,” but rather was encouraged by colonial powers in Europe.
Abbas based his remarks on Jewish historians, like Arthur Koestler — and Karl Marx, who had in fact written extensively in this area. Abbas concluded, "They [these historians] argue that hatred for the Jews had nothing to do with religion, but rather with the Jews’ social standing. This hatred, which was widespread in Europe, had nothing to do with religion, but rather was because of their Riba, banking [activities] and money-lending. So this is a totally different story. The best proof is that Jews were present in the Arab countries, and there has not been a single case against Jews. I assure you that no incident was recorded against Jews in the past 1,400 years just because of their religion in any Arab country.” Koestler’s work is controversial, however, and while Marx was ethnically Jewish, he was not religious.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem, defended Abbas and said that he resorted to Jewish thinkers to back his statement. Speaking to Radio Monte Carlo May 3, Abdul Hadi said Israel is trying to escape its own policies and crimes in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and even in the diaspora. He perceived the Western attacks on Abbas to be part of a double standard, saying, “Abbas used Jewish sources in reading the historical narrative. The sources are neither Arab nor Palestinian; he used Jewish sources regarding the state of Jews in Europe. Why has the world not paid attention to what Israel does and focused on Abbas’ words?”
Although the delegates and Palestinian public in general welcomed the tone and content of Abbas’ speech, criticism was leveled in public forums. Mohammed Daraghmeh, a veteran Palestinian journalist and media professor at Birzeit University, wrote a Facebook post May 3 criticizing the absence of advisers to Abbas who should have warned him. “Even if the president is convinced of it, why would he say it? … The focus in the international and Israeli media was shifted from Jerusalem and the Palestinian state to anti-Semitism. Friendly parties in the United States and Europe issued statements criticizing Abbas.”
Daraghmeh argued that “Abbas is not a media expert, and his advisers should have brought to his attention that such statements would grab the headlines at the expense of the Palestinian core messages.”
Daraghmeh added that Abbas’ talk regarding Jews in Europe represents old-school Palestinian ideology. “It is possible that this was his way of making a farewell speech,” he said.
On May 4, Abbas issued an apology to the Jewish people and denounced the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime in history.”
Since he is no longer willing to run for office and has succeeded in convening the PLO’s highest body, Abbas spoke with no political restrictions. The backlash was to be expected, but he felt that he wanted to have his thoughts on the record before exiting the political scene for good.
While his reading of the Jewish history will be seen as controversial, Abbas was careful to end his historical narrative with the fact that today Palestinians are willing to live with Israelis no matter what the history.
Repeating that Palestinians are not responsible for what happened to the Jews in Europe, Abbas concluded his historic reading by categorically saying that Palestinians are not calling to "uproot" Israelis today. He said, “We are in favor of living with them on the basis of the two-state solution — and based on that, we accept the situation.”