Mahmoud Abbas is not an anti-Semite. His political and personal history—in 2014 he condemned the Holocaust as the most heinous crime in response to those who challenged the notions contained in his controversial PhD thesis on Israel—testify that he does not have animus against the Jews, or even against the State of Israel, with which he has tried and failed to reach an agreement for 25 years.
It is rather the case that the Palestinian president is a “fool,” to choose a soft term over others that might be more appropriate.
He was a fool for saying what he said about the reasons behind the Holocaust in his Ramallah speech before the Palestinian National Council. He was a fool for the damage he caused to his own people, to their public image and their cause, which on Wednesday became the target of unjust and baseless accusations by those who never miss an opportunity to dehumanize the Palestinians.
Abbas has for a long time been inadequate as president of the Palestinian people. And with this latest outburst, he has proven to be actively harmful to his people. If he were in full possession of his faculties, he would understand that the only solution now is to step aside immediately and leave to others the task of redefining the strategies and policies aimed at liberating the Palestinians.
At the beginning of his speech, Abbas referred to Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state as a colonial project. On this issue, the historical debate has been ongoing for a long time. Even some Jewish Israeli academics of international renown, such as Ilan Pappe, are saying that Zionism was a colonial movement and not just a nationalist one, like the official state historiography has repeated for decades.
Then, Abbas gave his listeners what he described as a “history lesson,” claiming that the extermination of the Jews, the Holocaust, was not caused by the anti-Semitism of Hitler and the Nazis but by the “social function” of the Jews, tied to their professions that were connected to lending money and banks. This is a classic anti-Semitic stereotype, and it raised a storm of reactions, both in Israel and in the West.
Abbas, who is looking to Europe and the US to ensure the survival of the Palestinian National Authority, both unpopular and submissive to Israel, apparently does not realize that these issues hit some of the most sensitive nerves in the West. He raised the ire of the Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy) with his usual behavior: he doesn’t listen to others, he doesn’t consult anyone before acting, he doesn’t take into account the decisions of the Palestinian institutional bodies.
Abbas was not supposed to give “history lessons” to the members of the National Council which met on Monday in Ramallah, but rather to announce new alternative strategies to the Oslo Accords, and to proclaim the will to enact a real reconciliation between all Palestinian political factions. He needed to propose new names for renewing the leadership and ask for space for the representatives of the Palestinian popular movement that we have been seeing in action in Gaza in recent weeks. He could have declared the end of his blockade of Gaza—as the Israeli and Egyptian ones are enough—or, finally respecting what his people have been asking him for years, suspended cooperation between the secret services of the PNA and those of Israel.
In the absence of any of this, his statements that the way toward a Palestinian state goes through popular unarmed struggle in parallel with diplomatic steps is nothing more than oft-repeated ceremonial platitudes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was handed a golden opportunity, and he took full advantage. “Apparently the Holocaust denier is still a Holocaust denier. I call on the international community to condemn his severe anti-Semitism,” he said on Twitter, adding that “with utmost ignorance and brazen gall, he claimed that European Jews were persecuted and murdered not because they were Jews but because they gave loans with interest.”
Netanyahu knows well that the dissolution of Palestinian rights is furthered by these themes. A few years ago, Netanyahu said the Islamic mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al Husseini, a staunch opponent of Israel’s founding, was the one who inspired of the “final solution,” the extermination of the Jewish people conducted by Hitler. This thesis has been refuted by scholars on Israel, including Jewish historians, but it has left its mark. Now, the joint condemnations by other Israeli leaders played along the same lines.
The American administration, with which the Palestinians broke off relations in December after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, also jumped in to criticize. “Lasting peace will not be achieved” on this basis, tweeted Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy charged with negotiations. The European Union, on its part, has said it considered “unacceptable” the statements made by the Palestinian president. “Such rhetoric,” the EU statement continued, “will only play into the hands of those who do not want a two-state solution, which President Abbas has repeatedly advocated.”