If it weren’t so much his own fault, I’d feel deeply sorry for Mahmoud Abbas right now. A few weeks ago, the Palestinian Authority president was handily beating Hamas in the polls; now, his popularity is at a nadir. A whopping 85 percent of West Bank Palestinians approve of Hamas’s performance during the current fighting with Israel, while only 13 percent approve of Abbas’s performance. His own people have held stormy demonstrations denouncing him as a “traitor”; he was concerned enough to send his wife and grandchildren to Jordan for safety. And what heinous crime did he commit to merit this opprobrium? He urged Hamas to accept an immediate cease-fire in Gaza in order to save Palestinian lives.
In short, Abbas forgot the ironclad rule of Palestinian politics: Taking Israeli lives is always more popular that saving Palestinian lives. The martyrdom culture Palestinian political and religious leaders have nurtured for generations means that even if a war kills far more Palestinians than Israelis, waging it “restores their feeling of human dignity,” as one former PA official said last week. And while Abbas didn’t create this culture, he has not only made no effort to wean his people off it in almost 10 years as PA president; he has actively reinforced it. Day in and day out, he has told his people that those who murder Israelis are the Palestinians’ greatest heroes, the model every Palestinian should strive to emulate.
On May 31, 2012, for instance, he presided over an official state ceremony to honor 91 terrorists whose bodies had just been returned by Israel. Collectively, these terrorists killed over 100 Israeli civilians; many were suicide bombers. As Abbas laid wreaths on their coffins, the secretary-general of his office and the PA-appointed mufti both gave eulogies saying the souls of the deceased were urging other Palestinians to “follow in their path.”
That’s one example out of hundreds; here’s some more from the last few months: In June, Abbas awarded the order of merit to the planner of several deadly suicide bombings, “in appreciation of his role in the struggle and his commitment to defending the Palestinian people.” In May, at a ceremony honoring another man responsible for several deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, Abbas’s representative declared, “Our Martyrs and prisoners will remain the beacon of our magnificent glory … We must be loyal to these heroes in all aspects.” In February, Abbas awarded the Star of Honor to yet another terrorist responsible for numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.
Under his leadership, the PA has named city squares, summer camps, and sports tournaments after terrorists; its official television station has broadcast videos and programs glorifying terrorism; his Fatah party has handed out candy to celebrate terror attacks and exalted terrorists as role models on its Facebook page; and much more.
In every possible way, Abbas has told his people for 10 years that the true heroes, the ones to be emulated, are those who kill Israelis, whatever the cost. And it’s worked so well that now, when he tries to tell them shooting rockets at Israel isn’t worth the price in Palestinian lives, they denounce him as a traitor.
So yesterday, he gave up. After days of trying to prevent Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the West Bank, he let his Fatah party organize a violent demonstration in which some 10,000 Palestinians threw rocks and firebombs at Israeli police guarding the main checkpoint into Jerusalem, thereby producing yet more martyrs for the Palestinian cause: one Palestinian killed and 200 injured, three of them critically. That, after all, is what the Palestinians wanted.
And that’s also why Abbas never has and never will sign a peace agreement with Israel. You can’t sign an agreement ending the conflict when your own people denounce you as a traitor even for trying to arrange a cease-fire. And you can’t persuade your people to accept such an agreement as long as they consider saving Palestinian lives lower priority than taking Israeli ones.