Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has consistently refused to negotiate in good faith or to make peace with Israel since he succeeded the equally obdurate Yasir Arafat in 2004. He’s also been consistent in another way: he lies a lot. Abbas’s mendacity isn’t the garden-variety white lies, exaggerations and obfuscations that are the routine fare of American politicians. Instead, he is given to telling the barefaced lies we tend to associate with the heads of dictatorial regimes. Which is, of course, the sort of government the Palestinian Authority has more in common with than democratic systems such as that of Israel and the United States.
The latest example of this came in an interview Saturday night with Israel’s Channel Two in which Abbas was reduced to claiming that some well-documented statements of his never actually happened. According to Abbas, he never discussed Israel’s offer to allow some Palestinian refugees into the country with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He also claimed he never told respected Washington Post editor and columnist Jackson Diehl that he had no intention of negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That both of those figures can prove he did say those things goes without saying. But the point here is not just that Abbas is a liar, though that is exactly what he is. Rather, it is that Palestinian political culture is such that Abbas knows he has no choice but to lie about these things. To do otherwise would place him in opposition to the overwhelming sentiment of those opposed to peace or to even the appearance of compromise with Israel.
Abbas is, after all, in a difficult position. In order to maintain the pose of moderation he has cultivated with the West, he has had to engage in talks with American and even Israeli leaders and say things about peace terms that he wouldn’t dare mention to an Arab audience. But conversations such as the one Rice documented in her memoir are not the sort of thing he can admit. Doing so will weaken his already shaky popularity among Palestinians at a time when his Hamas rivals are seeking to poach on his West Bank fiefdom.
As for his controversial interview with Diehl, Abbas’s candor about his unwillingness to talk to Israel in 2009 was as much the fault of President Obama as it was the Palestinian’s intransigence. In those early months of the Obama presidency, the hostility of the new administration for Israel was palpable, and Abbas figured it made no sense for him to accept Netanyahu’s offers of talks. With the president trying to extract concessions from Israel without the Palestinians having to do anything in return, Abbas’s stance made sense, especially because he may have shared the delusion held by many in the White House and State Department they could topple the newly elected Netanyahu.
In retrospect, Abbas probably regrets thinking that Obama would hand Israel to him on a silver platter as much as the administration may (or at least should) regret banking on the PA be willing to take advantage of all the help they were trying to give. Thus, Abbas must lie about his talk with Diehl as well as his conversations with Rice.
But lest you think Abbas’s fibs are merely the function of diplomacy, elsewhere in the interview, Abbas played to his Palestinian base with another lie about the events of 1948. He claimed that nearly a million Arabs left the territory of Israel during the fighting and they now numbered five million, among whom he counts himself. In fact, the number he cites would have included almost the entire Arab population of the Palestinian Mandate at the time. Because almost 200,000 remained inside the territory of the new state of Israel and hundreds of thousands more remained in their homes in Gaza and the West Bank (which were illegally occupied by Egypt and Jordan), the numbers don’t add up.
Of course, Abbas has experience lying about numbers. His doctoral thesis claimed six million Jews were not killed during the Holocaust. What are a few lies about conversations with Rice and Diehl when compared to Holocaust denial?
If this is Israel’s peace partner, there’s no mystery about why the peace process has been dead in the water for years.