Israel Pulse

Abbas speech draws fire amid accusations of anti-Semitism

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Article Summary
As this week's speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas drew condemnation from Israel, associates say the remarks reflect his own distress over the diplomatic deadlock he is facing.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ April 30 speech to the Palestinian National Council at first went unnoticed by most Israelis and was given scant media coverage, though not for long. While the Palestinian leader was rewriting Jewish history, using racist language and denying the Holocaust, Israelis were riveted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s live presentation of Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranian documents and CDs Netanyahu exhibited on all of Israel’s television channels left no room for Abbas on the agenda.

Otherwise, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman would not have missed this opportunity to condemn him immediately. They would have argued that they had been right all along in saying he was the main obstacle to peace. In fact, even those still espousing the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who saw Abbas as a potential negotiating partner will not be able to defend his outrageous remarks, which provide substantial grist to portray him as a hater of Jews, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Here are just a few quotes from his 90-minute speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah:

“From the 11th century until the Holocaust that took place in Germany, the Jews — who moved to Western and Eastern Europe — were subjected to a massacre every 10-15 years. But why did this happen?” Abbas asked. His Shylock-inspired answer: “Not because of their religion, but rather their social role related to usury and banks.”

The Palestinian president then launched into a conspiracy theory whereby the Jewish state was actually established by European powers. “The truth is that Zionism was a colonial project with no relationship to Judaism, designed to plant a foreign presence in the land,” he said. According to Abbas, the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British rulers of Palestine supporting a homeland for the Jewish people and the 1947 UN resolution partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state were attempts by European states to salvage their international standing, which was threatened with being supplanted in the Middle East and the Maghreb. That was why they sent the Jews “east of the Suez Canal” to “leave the states of the Middle East backward and unstable.”

In between, Abbas tried to claim that Ashkenazi Jews of European origin who were persecuted by the Nazis and immigrated to Israel were not even Jewish. He based his claim on the theory advanced by Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book “The Thirteenth Tribe,” which argued that Ashkenazi Jews are not descendants of the historical Israelites but of the Khazars, a Turkic people. However, Abbas truly outdid himself when he claimed that one of those pushing to settle the Jews in Palestine prior to World War II was none other than Adolf Hitler. Abbas said Hitler had reached an agreement with the Bank of Palestine (today’s Bank Leumi) to enable property transfers of Jews if they were to leave Germany and move to Palestine. Abbas even went so far as to claim that Josef Stalin was Jewish. At this point, an embarrassed rustling was heard in the audience as his aides rushed to correct him.

There is not enough room to quote all the comments made by Abbas in trying to deny the right of the Jews to the State of Israel. One thing, however, is clear: Rather than achieving his goal, Abbas gave weighty ammunition to his opponents and disappointed many who saw him as a partner in the peace process undermined by Netanyahu’s policies.

This is not the first time Abbas has been suspected of racism against Jews. His doctoral thesis at Moscow University, titled “The ties between the Nazis and Zionism in the years 1933-1945,” gave rise to repeated accusations of Holocaust denial. Abbas claimed in his 1982 dissertation that leaders of the Zionist movement had exaggerated the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust to 6 million and accused the Jews of aiding the Nazis. In 2014, he disavowed his argument, saying he wrote the text at a time when Israel and the PLO were at war, and today no one can deny the terrible crime of the Holocaust and the annihilation of European Jewry.

In recent years, in light of his growing understanding that his tenure as the head of the Palestinian Authority will end in failure without his having attained a solution for his people, Abbas has reverted to his dark reveries.

In July 2016, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he suggested suing the United Kingdom via the Arab League for its proclamation, but could not find any takers. In January 2018, after US President Donald Trump announced the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Abbas delivered a tirade at a meeting of the PLO’s National Council. “May God demolish your house,” he wished on Trump. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said at the time, “These are the very things for which he has been accused of being a Holocaust denier."

At the Palestinian National Council meeting earlier this week, Abbas adopted a harsher tone. Without blinking, he mobilized Hitler, Stalin, Balfour and the Khazars, probably to explain the failure of his diplomatic route to a Palestinian state. The Palestinians are well-aware that Abbas has made this strategy the centerpiece of his leadership.

Activists in Abbas’ Fatah movement told Al-Monitor that his distress is understandable because he is currently fighting for his political life. They said Abbas had sought to explain to the Palestinians that he was up against international forces far stronger than they knew. The activists were reluctant to speak openly, but they were clearly uncomfortable with the line taken by their leader. They think his old-new approach weakens international support for his just demand for a Palestinian state, especially among the European states he accused of playing a role in a Zionist conspiracy.

Because of the Iranian nuke speech, it took Netanyahu almost two days to react to Abbas’ address. “With utmost ignorance and brazen gall, he claimed that European Jews were persecuted and murdered not because they were Jews but because they made loans with interest,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "Apparently the Holocaust denier is still a Holocaust denier. I call on the international community to condemn Abbas’ severe anti-Semitism. The time has come for it to pass from the world," added Netanyahu. Addressing the Knesset, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz called upon the Palestinians to "kick Abbas out," adding, "For years I have claimed that this evil person espouses an anti-Semitic ideology worse than that of Iranian leaders or [former PLO leader] Yasser Arafat. He is truly an anti-Semite," he said.

As far at the Israelis are concerned, Abbas' statements hardly advance the possibility of dialogue.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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