The hypocrisy of Abbas’ critics
The speech given by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the opening session of the Palestine National Council was long by any standards. His address, broadcast live from Ramallah on April 30, was two hours of uninterrupted talk.
The majority of the speech reiterated his consistent support for negotiations, without the US having a monopoly on talks, peaceful resistance and the need to work with Israeli peace groups, and the accomplishments on the ground toward Palestinian statehood.
While the president’s speech was long and all-encompassing, the only part of it that seems to have caught the belated attention of Israelis, and then Europeans and the UN, was a section toward the end of his talk that dealt with history.
Abbas wanted to change the narrative that has justified Israel’s existence, ethnic cleansing, occupation and settlement enterprise. He tried to do it by going back to before the advent of the Zionist movement, to the days before the 1917 Balfour declaration, and by quoting Jewish writers and thinkers.
It is not clear why he felt the need to tackle the issue of anti-Semitism but his attempt at dealing with history was not very successful. He tried to claim that anti-Semitism was not about the Jews but about a particular economic group, but his dabbling in history was of the cherry-picking variety, where certain authors and statements are chosen that fit your argument without any attempt at putting them in context.
In his attempt to debunk anti-Semitism, Abbas never really presented a coherent, well-crafted argument. He repeatedly mistook names, speaking about Stalin being Jewish until someone corrected him and pointed out that he was thinking of Karl Marx.
Although Palestinian president’s historical narrative was not coherent and hard to defend, the self-righteous anger expressed by Europe and the UN appear to be contrived and politically motivated.
He began his historical monologue by saying that Shlomo Levy was the only Israeli to have agreed with his last speech to the Palestine Central Council. Again, he had to be corrected and reminded that the maverick pro-Palestinian Haaretz columnist he was talking about is named Gideon Levy.
Although Abbas’ historical narrative was not coherent and hard to defend, the self-righteous anger expressed by Europe and the UN appear to be contrived and politically motivated. It seems to have been aimed at gaining credit with Israel to offset their opposition to Israeli actions, especially the recent killings of unarmed Palestinians. Europeans and the UN expect that as the US Embassy move and the 70th anniversary of the Nakba approaches, things will get hot and they will be speaking out against Israel.
While he went on for too long, Abbas was clearly enjoying the setting and the audience, and wanted them all to know in great detail why various decisions had been made, and that Palestinians do want to find a negotiated solution with Israel that includes America, as long as the US is not the sole sponsor of any talks.
Abbas apologized for his comments on Friday, saying: “If people were offended by my statement at the Palestinian National Council, especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them.” He reiterated “our long held condemnation of the Holocaust, as the most heinous crime in history.”
Abbas might have given his last PNC speech on Monday night, but he will not exit the political scene anytime soon. The newly-elected PLO executive committee will reflect fresher and younger faces, and the PNC session has given life and legitimacy to an aging organization and an aging leader. For the time being, though, the only area of movement as far as Abbas is concerned will be in building the foundation of a Palestinian state, brick by brick.
This might be the legacy that Abbas will leave to coming generations. Not expecting much from a world that pays only lip service to Palestinian suffering, Abbas seemed comfortable enough to talk history and to try to affect the political narrative.
• Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.