To listen to anyone in the Obama administration, Mahmoud Abbas isn’t just Israel’s best hope for a peace partner. From President Obama on down, the Palestinian Authority leader has been spoken of in almost heroic terms as a genuine moderate and a man who has shown himself willing to make real sacrifices for peace. This portrayal has always been sheer fiction but it has been bolstered by Abbas’s clever decision to speak in one manner to the Western and Israeli press while singing a very different tune to Arabic and Palestinian media. This was proved again last week when he told an Egyptian TV program (the transcript from which was published by Memri.org, that essential window into the Arab media) that not only would he never recognize Israel as a Jewish state but also insisted that “we cannot close the door to those who wish to return,” a clear allusion to a demand for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
In speaking in this manner, Abbas’s double game is effectively debunked by his own words. The so-called “right of return” is a touchstone of Palestinian rejectionism, based as it is on the notion that millions of descendants of the several hundred thousand refugees from the 1948 War of Independence should be allowed to return to pre-1967 Israel and effectively transform it into an Arab-majority nation. Such a demand is not only incompatible with the notion of peace; it is an explicit rejection of efforts to end the conflict. In effect, Abbas’s idea of a two-state solution is to have one Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and part of a divided Jerusalem in which no Jews will live and another inside Israel’s 1967 lines in which an Arab majority will dominate a Jewish minority.
Even more interesting is the fact that in this interview, Abbas claimed that there were “six million” such persons waiting to enter Israel. According to the Times of Israel, this was not an attempt by Abbas to echo the symbolism of the Holocaust by positing a population of so-called victims of Israel that is the same as the number of Jews killed by the Nazis. Instead, they think it is an attempt to claim that the refugees are as numerous as the current Jewish population of Israel, which amounts to approximately six million persons. They may be right about that but given Abbas’s background as a Holocaust denier (his doctoral thesis questioning the number of Jews killed in the Shoah is still being promoted by official Palestinian media), it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But no matter why Abbas spoke of “six million” refugees, the number is bogus since it exceeds even the widely inflated claims of UNRWA, which has done its best to perpetuate and promote the narrative of refugee victimhood.
Why would Abbas embrace rejectionism in this manner even though President Obama still thinks he is a champion of peace?
Abbas is locked in a competition with his Hamas rivals/erstwhile coalition partners in which the only way to gain credibility on the Palestinian street is to attack Israel and pander to nationalist sentiment about its destruction. As the interview also makes clear, he’s also attempting to exploit the controversy over Israel’s proposed law officially declaring the country a Jewish state. But, as Abbas and even some of the law’s Israeli and Western critics know, a law that restates the obvious about Israel wouldn’t change a thing about the country’s identity or in any way diminish the rights of non-Jews there. Yet the propaganda value of branding Israel as an “apartheid state” is too great a temptation for Abbas to pass up.
The talk about refugees also directly contradicts Abbas’s statements made in a 2012 Israeli TV interview in which he disavowed the right of return and alluded to his own lack of interest in going back to his family’s home in Safed. It should also serve as a reminder that an equal number of Jews were forced to flee from their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after 1948. Any talk of compensation for Arab refugees should be balanced by an equal concern for the descendants of the Jews who were dispossessed by the Arab war against Israel.
These statements ought to quiet those who continue to claim Abbas is a peace partner or, despite his repeated refusal to accept Israel peace offers, someone who is even remotely capable of signing an agreement that would end the conflict. Like his decision to blow up Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative earlier this year, Abbas’s only strategic imperative is to avoid making peace. His end-run around the negotiations and his futile decision to use United Nations agencies as a forum for Israel-bashing also demonstrate that his goal is to never again be boxed in where he will have to either explicitly turn down an Israeli offer or agree to a historic compromise.
While the Obama administration openly roots for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s defeat in the upcoming elections and issues vague threats about sanctions on Israel if he is reelected, the real obstacle to peace remains Abbas and his people’s political culture that makes ending the conflict impossible. Until the U.S. recognizes this and starts treating Abbas as the problem rather than a possible solution, U.S. Middle East policy will continue to be a clueless failure.