23.09.2016 Article by Elhanan Miller
 

Mahmoud Abbas and Zionism: From Struggle to Acceptance

Israelis often hear it said that Palestinian President Abbas calls for peace in English but for armed struggle in Arabic. Those who propound this claim, most of whom know no Arabic, are merely regurgitating criticism of Arafat’s doublespeak. In fact, meticulous research shows that Abbas’ views on Israel and Zionism have grown more moderate over time

In March 2016, a group of Israelis paid a formal visit to the offices of President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Most of them were, by extraction, Jews from Arab countries. Yet despite offering them a warm welcome, Abbas repeatedly stressed in his speech that he does not favor one segment of Israeli society over another. Palestinians and Jews from Arab countries may share a language, a culture, and a common history, he explained, but his attitude to all sectors and ethnicities in Israeli society is the same.

A stranger happening upon the scene may have wondered why Abbas was so determined to deny any special affinity with Israelis from Arab countries. His guests may have asked themselves the same question. Nonetheless, Abbas’ statement of impartiality towards Israelis as a whole highlighted the profound changes that his views of the Zionist movement have undergone over the years. As this paper will show, Abbas has shifted considerably in his understanding of the motivations and failings of Zionism and in his belief that its achievements can be reversed.

While his predecessor, father of the Palestinian struggle Yasser Arafat, left virtually no written legacy, Abbas seems to have never put his pen down. Since joining Fatah in the mid-1960s he has been a man of letters, an ideologue, and an intellectual serving the movement. In his 1982 doctoral dissertation, submitted to Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University under the title “The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism”, Abbas claimed that the Zionist movement enjoyed close ties with the pre-WWII Nazi regime in Germany and cast doubt upon the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

While this may be the most cited of his studies, Abbas actually began writing about Zionism and its ramifications at least five years earlier, and continued to do so for many years. His academic output spans dozens of articles, booklets, and books, only a few of which have been translated into English. The Palestinian presidential website contains scanned copies of some 16 books and booklets that were published from 1977 to 2003 – the year he resigned from his post as Palestinian prime minister under Arafat – and reprinted in Ramallah in 2011. These materials, surveyed here systematically for the first time, allow us to trace development and change in the political thought of the man who has led the Palestinian national movement for the last eleven years.

Zionism as racism

In his book Zionism, Beginning and End (A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 1977), Abbas tried to draw a clear distinction between Zionism, which he saw as an imperialist and racist political movement, and Judaism, presented as a moral and pure religion. Abbas saw Zionism as a sin whose first victims were Jews, and only then the Palestinians.[1] To justify its existence, the Zionist movement had created “the Jewish problem”, which did not exist in reality and certainly not in Arab countries, where Jews and Arabs had coexisted for centuries.                 

Abbas stressed that Zionism saw itself as a national liberation movement striving to guarantee Jews a safe haven from persecution. In fact, he claimed, it was the creation of imperialistic world powers throughout history, from Cyrus the Great of Persia to Napoleon. The major fault for creating Zionism lay with the British Empire, which feared the rise of Muhammad Ali’s dynasty in 19th-century Egypt and ended up granting the Zionists the Balfour Declaration in 1917.[2]                 

Years before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Abbas recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the Palestinian leader was examining whether Jews constitute a religious community only or a national group, too. He understood early on that this question was crucial to determining whether the Jews have the right to self-definition. Abbas presented the debate as primarily an internal issue within the Jewish community, stating that “most Jews claimed that Judaism is a religion, no more and no less.”[3][4] He quoted Britain’s chief rabbi in the early 20th century, Herman Adler, as saying that Jewish national identity ended “when Palestine fell to the Romans”[5] and that since then, Jews have belonged to the respective nation-states in which they live.                  

In contrast, Abbas said, Zionist founder Theodor Herzl believed that Jews throughout the Diaspora constituted a single national unit. Yet Jews lacked the fundamental component that most thinkers see as essential to national identity: living within a defined territory. To overcome this problem, stated Abbas, the Zionists adopted an alternative definition for nationality put forth by 19th-century philosopher Ernest Renan, which centered on sharing spirituality, current aspirations, and past achievements. Abbas claimed that British imperialism “tried to instill these ideas in the minds of Jews in order to convince them that they have a right to a homeland and to be a nation like all other nations.”[6]                 

Abbas wrote that, in order to persuade Jews to immigrate to Palestine against their natural wishes, the Zionist leaders initiated terror attacks against Jews in various countries. According to Abbas, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, believed that “a Jew who does not live in Israel is not a Jew […] and does not believe in God and in the Torah and in the Talmud” and instigated attacks to drive mass Jewish emigration.[7] Abbas attributed a 1980 Paris synagogue bombing to “the Zionist movement”,[8] arguing that it was the only national liberation movement in the world to wish disaster on its diaspora in order to encourage emigration.[9] It cared nothing for the wellbeing of Jews in the diaspora, he said, as this would only hinder immigration and the fulfillment of Zionism’s major goal: settling the Land of Israel. In fact, he stated, “Zionism and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same coin”.[10]                 

Abbas believed that racism was inherent to the Zionist movement. He wrote an entire book, Israel and South Africa, Racist Countries (Isra’il Ujanub Afriqiyah Al-Unsuriyatain), comparing South Africa’s apartheid regime with the modern state of Israel. According to Abbas, both states were founded by a colonialist enterprise that relied on a philosophical notion of racist supremacy. In Israel, this took the form of belief that Jews are “the chosen people” and that Palestine is “the promised land”.[11]                 

However, Zionist racism was not applied only to Arabs but primarily inwards, towards certain parts of Jewish society. The rift between what came to be known as Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African) Jews occupied a major portion of Abbas’ writing: he saw Zionism as an appalling Ashkenazi injustice toward Jews from Islamic countries. “What the Westerners fear most is that the number of Mizrahi Jews will grow and Israel will become a Middle Eastern country in which the goals and aspirations of Zionism will fade away. This fear sometimes reaches crazy, obsessive heights”, he observed.[12]                 

Abbas argued that Mizrahi Jews found themselves in Israel against their interests, thanks to various terror attacks and subversive intervention by Zionists in their home countries. Since then, he claimed, they have been seeking a way back. The Zionist movement had no choice but to initiate the immigration of Jews from Islamic countries after failing to get enough European Jews to relocate. Even then, according to Abbas, many Mizrahi Jews preferred to convert to Islam (in Yemen) or move their entire communities to France (from Algeria) than come to Israel.                  

According to Abbas, Zionism’s greatest success in the context of the Middle East was bringing the Jews of Iraq to Israel. In his description, “these Jews were uprooted and forcefully sent to the Zionist butcher”.[13] He also claimed that the pogroms against the Jews of Baghdad in June 1941, which came to be known the Farhoud, were the turning point at which Zionism began agitating among Iraqi Jews:Their emigration from Iraq was unnatural and unreasonable. It is not true that they immigrated because they were Zionist or because [reaching] Israel was their loftiest aspiration […]. It is also not true that they moved for religious reasons or for the sacred temple of Solomon, because they could have freely immigrated to Palestine at any time, from the days of Cyrus the Great to the end of the Ottoman period. They did the opposite: they turned Iraq into the world center of Jewish leadership and fought against Jerusalem taking its place.[14]

For Abbas, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews from Islamic countries came to Israel – becoming two-thirds of its Jewish population – was “a huge success of Zionism”. Yet in other respects, he wrote, Zionism failed utterly, especially in keeping Jews within Israel. Abbas relied on a study published in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 1974, according to which most of those wishing to leave Israel were Mizrahi Jews. Abbas believed that the desire to leave Israel stemmed from the common belief among young Israelis that “their lives will be an insufferable hell, a relentless military reality, and endless reserve duty.”[15] In a deeper sense, the Israeli citizen who “is always drawn to life abroad because he does not belong to a homeland, to the land, or to the earth itself” will refuse to take part in war against Palestinians due to a profound feeling that the land is not his own. “All the myths perpetuated by the Israeli propagandists”, stated Abbas, “will not be enough to persuade Israelis to stay and defend a land that they feel deep down in their souls belongs to someone else.”[16]                 

Mizrahi Jews, whom Abbas termed “Arab citizens of Jewish extraction”, would be the ones to lead the emigration from Israel. In fact, Abbas wrote, the Israeli Black Panther movement and others were crying out to their Arab brothers to save them from Israel’s institutional racism, but to no avail. Many Mizrahi Jews even risked their lives crossing the border into Arab countries, where they were subjected to violent and degrading interrogations, just to flee Israel.[17]                  

Declaring that Zionism was not an organic Jewish movement meant that Abbas had to seek out partners among anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish groups and overstate their impact. Thus, he lumped together markedly different ideological groups ranging from the Satmar Hassidic Rav Tov and the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta to the Black Panther Mizrahi protest movement and socialist group Matzpen.[18] His descriptions of these various movements were replete with spelling mistakes and factual errors, indicating ignorance of Hebrew. Abbas admitted that he did not know the true size of these movements, but added that other Jewish movements may dare to side with the Palestinian national movement in its fight against Zionism.                 

In a booklet titled The Palestinian-Jewish Refugees (Al-Laja’oun Al-Falistiniyoun-Al-Yahoud), Abbas lengthily detailed the injustices perpetrated by Zionism against the pre-existing Jewish population of Palestine, relying on ultra-Orthodox literature and on accounts by Neturei Karta. He distinguished between Jews who believed in Zionism and those who literally embodied its principles, dividing Jewish society into four categories: Zionists in body and soul (“the grandchildren of Herzl and Jabotinsky”); post-Zionists who had shed their Zionist persuasion thanks to the unwavering Palestinian struggle; members of the Israeli Communist Party; and the ultra-Orthodox sect of Neturei Karta, whom he called “an inseparable part of the Palestinian sphere” and “one of our factions”:[19]It is possible to separate those who talk of Zionism but do not fulfill it from those who practice it and work to expand it. These [the former] can be seen as a new category that is open to change and to progressing towards a disavowal of Zionism.[20]

At face value, Abbas’ views on Zionism were largely aligned with the conventional Arab approach.[21] However, he stood out by broadly relying on Jewish and Israeli sources to bolster his arguments and by showing great empathy for Jewish interests, as he understood them. He repeatedly called on his Arab readers to differentiate Jews from Zionists (a distinction that many Jews currently reject), apparently in an attempt to prevent harm to Jews living outside Israel/Palestine in the name of the Palestinian national struggle.  

Self-criticism: The Arab world as the problem and the solution

While Abbas’ analysis of Zionism and its motives lay at the heart of the Arab consensus, he significantly departed from the mainstream by harshly criticizing the Arab states for their treatment of their Jewish citizens and Palestinian brothers.                 

Abbas observed that the Arab world was unable to tell “Jews” from “Zionists”. Because of this conceptual flaw, around the time that the State of Israel was founded the Arab leaders turned on their innocent Jewish citizens, forcing them to flee to Israel. In doing so, these Arab rulers inadvertently helped the Zionist movement achieve its goals. In 1981, he wrote: We cannot deny the fact that we Arabs greatly assisted the Zionist movement in uprooting the Jews from all the Arab countries: they now comprise 65% of Israel’s Jewish residents and more than 97% of the population in its periphery.[22]

As noted above, Abbas saw the expulsion of Iraqi Jews as a prototype of what happened in other Arab countries. He described how Zionist movements began operating in Iraq in the 1940s with the assistance of the British embassy and the suspicious collaboration of then-Prime Minister Nuri Said. A vigorous public campaign eventually led to legislation revoking the Iraqi citizenship of Jews. Once their citizenship was revoked, the Jews tried to flee the country by any means possible, legal or otherwise. The few who insisted on remaining suffered “criminal treatment” by “the triad of Zionism-imperialism-reactionary [Arab] regimes”.[23]

In his critique of Arab regimes, Abbas mixed morality with pragmatism. In 1977, he wrote: The way in which the Arab regimes dealt with their Jewish subjects, whether intentionally or not, is regrettable and painful to recall. It cannot be described as anything but a shameful disgrace. Did these regimes not give Zionism the key to its existence and success? Did they not defend and preserve it? The number of Jewish Arabs in Israel is now more than 1.5 million, out of some 2.75 million [Israeli Jews]. Two-thirds of Israelis are our people, our brethren. We made them enemies and forced them to oppose us by leaving them no choice. We forced them to choose between immigrating to Israel and death and annihilation, with no other alternative.[24]

Abbas’ empathy towards an entire segment of Israeli society is extraordinary given the fact that, at the time, his movement – Fatah – was committed to a violent struggle against Israel. Fatah regularly instigated terror attacks against civilians, mostly from within an area of Lebanon known in Israel as “Fatah-land”. Less than a year after Abbas published the above passage, his movement attacked a tour bus driving along Israel’s coastal road, killing 35 Israelis and injuring 71.                  

Abbas railed against the Arab regimes not only for their conduct towards their Jewish citizens, but also for neglecting their Palestinian brothers after the 1948 Nakba. With furious contempt, he described how the Arab countries that took part in the 1948 war failed to liberate the land and acted deplorably towards the Palestinian refugees who fled to them. At times, he was more vitriolic on this subject than on Zionism: The Arab armies went in to defend the Palestinian people against the tyranny of the Zionists. They expelled the Palestinians and drove them out of their land, and then placed them under political and intellectual siege, throwing them into prisons much like the ghettos in which Jews lived in Eastern Europe. As though we were destined to switch roles, they got out of the ghettoes and we took their place. The Arab countries managed to tear the Palestinian people to pieces and destroy their unity. They did not acknowledge Palestinians as a nation until the rest of the world did. That is lamentable.”[25]

Abbas also protested the gap between Arab anti-Zionist rhetoric and practice. “For 17 years, their radios thundered out that the Jews must be thrown into the sea and the refugees be allowed to return home”, he wrote, “but they did not throw the Jews into the sea and did not enable the refugees to go home.” Throughout the long years of conflict, the only war that restored Arab dignity was the 1973 war, “in which the Arabs proved they can fight.”[26]                 

The Arabs failed not only to vanquish Israel, but also in their diplomatic and educational policies. Due to the boycott resolution by the Arab League, buying books or newspapers issued in Israel was prohibited, as was listening to Israeli radio stations, learning Hebrew, or any contact with Israelis. In Why These Talks? (Hadha Al-Itisalat Limadha?), a book about the early dialogue between the PLO and parts of the Israeli Left, Abbas decried the “naïve” idea that objecting to Israel justified boycotting potential partners on the Israeli side.[27]                 

Abbas also criticized the Arab decision to boycott Western authors who wrote about Israel. He believed in meeting with these writers and trying to persuade them. It was fundamentally wrong, he argued, that not being familiar with Israel would aid the Arab struggle against it. Fighting the enemy can only be effective if you have a deep understanding of its culture: As part of the policy of rejecting Israeli society, the Arab regimes – especially those neighboring Israel – thought that by being ignorant and by educating their populace to be ignorant through avoiding any mention of Israel and Israelis, they would erase their existence! Some even took their revolutionary ideas so far as to believe that Israel only “exists virtually”. This theoretical discovery of a “virtual Israel” worked well for the regimes’ media, which repeated the term over and over without giving it a second thought or pausing to consider the consequences […]. In doing so, the media believed they were playing their part in the “struggle” and this eased their consciences. They provided a noble public service and boosted the fighting spirit on the Palestinian issue, fulfilling the public desire to fight an enemy that they know almost nothing about except that it is “virtual”. But succumbing to illusions has nothing to do with reality.”[28]

Abbas believed that the Arab countries could have reversed some of the damage caused by Zionism by taking back their Jewish citizens and offering them compensation. He complained that the Arab countries were unwilling to help the Palestinians with employment and insisted on meddling in their internal political affairs. In 1977, Abbas detailed a practical five-stage restitution plan:[29]

1.      Improving conditions for Jews who remained in Arab countries.

According to Abbas, the 50,000 or so remaining Jews were subjected to oppression and degradation by the Arab regimes. He praised their courage and loyalty for clinging to their identity as citizens despite being betrayed by their governments, and called on Arab countries “to treat members of all faiths equally in our [Arab] homeland; we, who have never throughout our history known discrimination based on race, color or creed.”

2.       Taking Arab Jews back and establishing secular Arab regimes.

Abbas presented this as the heart of his correction program. He believed that the Arab countries must cancel discriminatory laws against Jews and encourage those who emigrated to Israel to return home by offering financial compensation. Abbas was inspired by the history of Zionism and the establishment of the United Israel Appeal (Keren HaYesod) and the Jewish National Fund (HaKeren HaKayemet) in the early 20th century. In 1982 he even published a special pamphlet on his idea of “a United Arab Appeal”. Surprisingly, the appeal was not intended to promote Palestinian presence or to aid the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather to encourage willful relocation of Jews from Israel: We do not want to simplify or undervalue anything by claiming that money will solve the Zionist problem in Palestine. However, investing Arab money – of which there is a lot – in the right places can greatly assist both Jews and Arabs. If Jews in need are sponsored in a controlled, scientific way in order to help them emigrate, this will be an effective contribution to the struggle and equally as important as other ways in which the fight [against Israel] is currently being waged on the Palestinian front. Just as we need guns and words, we also need a project of this kind. Luckily, money comes first with Arabs. Can they use it correctly?”[30]

Abbas believed that an Arab United Appeal would be a philanthropic act towards Jewish Arabs in Israel, as they were only waiting for a chance to return en masse to their Arab home countries and escape “the hell that Zionism put them in”:While we call for the establishment of a secular Palestinian state and distinguish Judaism from Zionism, we support secular Arab states, countries in which Jews used to live as equal citizens just like non-Jews and occupied key positions in society, politics, and the economy; positions they would never dream of reaching in the state that they were told was theirs and had been founded for them.”[31]

3.       Assisting anti-Zionist Jewish organizations.

As discussed above, Abbas was in favor of broad cooperation with anti-Zionist Jewish organizations and believed that Arab governments must provide them with “money, [and] moral and material support, until they can fulfill their mission concerning their brothers.”[32] He found encouragement in the opinion of an Israeli journalist who doubted that Jews would stay in Israel if they were given financial incentives to leave.

4.       Arab lobbying in the United States.

Recognizing the US as the staunchest global supporter of Zionism, Abbas proposed that the Arabs begin lobbying with anti-Zionist propaganda. He believed that the US saw Zionism as vital to its interests in the Middle East, thanks to a concentrated Zionist effort coupled with Arab abandonment of the American front due to “helplessness and despair over the possibility of influencing or changing it.” Jewish power in the US was not a divine decree or a conspiracy, according to Abbas, and American citizens could be educated about the core of the conflict in the Middle East and convinced by the political price that their country was paying for alienating 120 million Arabs. Unlike rigid European civilization, American society is new and can be easily swayed by cost-benefit considerations:We must reach these people with a media campaign that is not populistic or emotional but led by educated, experienced representatives who are well-versed in the art of speech and conversation and can touch hearts and minds. Such a campaign would not cost as much as the secret expenses of a single Arab embassy in the US, but would certainly yield excellent results. Where, I ask, are the Arab brains?”[33]

5.       Arab-European dialogue.

Abbas planned to use a carrot with the US but a stick with Europe. He wrote that when hundreds of thousands of Jews left the Soviet union in the 1970s, Israel had massively pressured European countries into preventing them from settling there, forcing them to go to Israel instead. According to Abbas, Arab countries must exert their own pressure on Europe through an oil boycott and by threatening to withdraw private Arab money from European banks. “Is the essence of Arab[-European] dialogue building factories, attracting experts and researchers, following the interests rates of Arab investments, and reducing custom taxes?” he asked.[34] 

Armed struggle: A means, not an end

In 1968, the Palestinian National Charter – the founding document of the PLO – was amended. Armed struggle was redefined as an “overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase” and as “the only way to liberate Palestine”. The goal was to lend Fatah, which joined the PLO that year, a pioneering image and awaken Palestinian society from its political and military slumber.[35] For Abbas, this position was a turning of the tables. Since publishing his first book, he had held that armed struggle was only one of many means – and not necessarily the most important or efficient – to an end: Palestinian national independence in a secular state based on equality and pluralism.                  

In a 1992 speech he gave before the Palestinian Engineers’ Association, transcribed in a booklet titled The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Talks (Moubahathat Al-Islam Al-Falastiniyah Al-Isra’iliyah), Abbas detailed the reasons for entering talks with the Israeli leadership. All peoples that had fought for national liberation, he argued, had started off with an armed struggle and ended at the negotiations table. “When we started, we didn’t do it for the struggle but in order to achieve a political solution that would fulfill our aspirations and those of our nation”, he wrote.

The Palestinian leadership debated at length whether to agree to Israel’s condition that it would negotiate only with local leaders and not with the PLO at the Madrid Conference. After five intensive meetings, the Palestinian leadership in exile accepted this term, on the understanding that the “domestic” representatives were just as loyal to the national agenda as PLO people. In the end, said Abbas, the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation acted as a Palestinian delegation in every sense.[36]                  

Abbas held that armed struggle was an essential phase in Palestinian national liberation, as it forced the Israelis and the entire world to acknowledge the importance of the Palestinian issue, which had disappeared from Israeli and international view for many years.[37] In his 1992 speech, Abbas addressed the desire to replace negotiation with a violent struggle. The armed Intifada, he explained, was not an alternative to talks but rather a complementary tactic. “One day, we may no longer need an armed struggle and an Intifada, but now, while we are negotiating, we need them very much.”[38] 

At the height of the fighting between Israel and the PLO in 1981, shortly before the First Lebanon War broke out, Abbas published a study recommending smart use of military power. He welcomed the shelling of Kiryat Shmona and nearby communities in the northern tip of Israel, which caused thousands of Israelis to relocate south, and saw it as a turning point in the fight against Israel that would begin a wave of emigration to other countries and delay immigration of Soviet Jews.[39] Abbas identified two “Achilles’ heels” of “the Zionist entity”: loss of lives and forced evacuation of residents. Accordingly, he recommended that Palestinian fighters do the following:

1.       Focus on civilian communities and “take as many enemy lives as possible”.

2.       When planning “sacrificial acts” within Israel, refrain from attacking institutions, factories, and civilian facilities, as damaging them had little impact on life in Israel.

3.       Not target Jews outside Israel, even if they are Zionists, as this would be “a great service to the Zionist movement.”[40]

The last point is worth noting, as at the time Fatah was operating against Jewish and Israeli targets in Europe. Abbas strenuously objected to the attacks on a kosher restaurant in Paris and on a synagogue in Brussels, arguing that the perpetrators did not realize the implications for Jewish support of Israel: Zionists are dangerous only in the occupied land: settlers, residents, soldiers, combatants. They are a thousand times more dangerous than a Zionist who does not live in the Palestinian homeland and waves placards at demonstrations. The first and last duty of every Palestinian rifle is to arrive in the occupied land and get the Zionists out of the battlefield in any possible and legitimate way. One man after another must be dealt with, and only then buildings and facilities.[41]

Abbas again demonstrated his understanding of social gaps within Israel by noting that it was much more important to strike at the elitist Ashkenazi town of Nahariya than at the Mizrahi communities of Shlomi and Kiryat Shmona along the border. He painstakingly researched the neighborhoods in Haifa and Tel Aviv from which “decision makers” immigrated in the decades leading up to the establishment of Israel, mapping out the very streets on which they lived:Striking the northern settlements with artillery and missiles is very important, and human casualties are important. But casualties of particular social status are even more important. That is why we must identify the most painful spot, in the actions in the south or in any of the other special military actions carried out within the occupied territory. Choosing the target, the place and the residents lends the actions momentum and raises the chances of success.[42]

Yet despite his focus on killing Israeli civilians, Abbas did not see military action as the only option. Even in his first book, published in 1977, he stressed that warfare was not the only alternative available. “There are many options that could be much more beneficial than war alone, options that we have not yet examined or fully understood.”[43]                 

Many years later, in a rare display of self-criticism, Abbas attributed Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections in part to the fact that the Palestinian Authority had not crushed Hamas’ military power. He claimed that this had drastically undermined Israeli’s sense of security:Shimon Peres took the path of peace but did not guarantee the average Israeli personal security or protection from suicide attacks. The Palestinian Authority is partially responsible for the election results because it did not handle Hamas properly from the outset. It should have integrated Hamas into the institutions of the Palestinian Authority to an extent that matched its public power or even beyond. It should have fought against the military section without hesitation, as peacemakers who know that such attacks destroy the peace they have brought about and help extremist elements in Israel rise to power.[44]  

Recognizing Israel

It is hard to pinpoint when Abbas started believing that Zionism is irreversible and working towards the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, or when exactly he began addressing Jewish society in Israel as a single national unit. In his 2011 book The Oslo Path (Tariq Oslo), he presented himself as one of the first in Fatah to support peace talks with Israelis, along with top PLO members such as the organization’s representatives in London (Said Hamami), Paris (Ezzadin a-Laqlaq), Brussels (Naim Hader), and Issam Sartawi, who was appointed before Abbas to head the dialogue with Israeli society. Abbas says that he and his friends were a minority within Fatah at the time.[45]                  

In this book, Abbas almost entirely ceased to use the term “Zionism”, and Israel no longer appeared within quotation marks. Abbas documented his first ties with Israeli “supporters of peace” such as Abie Nathan and Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Matti Peled – discussions that eventually led to the Oslo Accords, which he took part in formulating, in September 1993.                  

Abbas appears to have come to terms with the existence of Israel due to changes in reality and the shift in the international power balance once the Soviet union collapsed, which was unfavorable for Arabs. When asked in an interview whether he felt he had surrendered the historical rights of the Palestinian people, Abbas replied: “Those rights have been lost in the mists of time; I’m trying to get some of them back.”[46]                 

Abbas attributed the idea of negotiations to PLO member Nabil Sha’ath, who realized how weak the Arab world was and the extent of international pressure on the Palestinians. Abbas understood Arab criticism of the PLO’s acknowledgement of Jewish rights to the land in theory and in practice, but insisted that this move was forced by reality: Although this idea was basically born of a feeling of Arab helplessness and the Palestinians’ inability to liberate their homeland on their own, it is a brave and honest strategic vision. We must take into account the global balance of power, the capabilities of the Arab region, and Israel’s great power.[47]

An example of Abbas’ pragmatism is his explanation for the end of the first Intifada, whose Palestinian participants never demanded that “the entire land” be released. Abbas thought that the Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War was disastrous: it led to the expulsion of 400,000 Palestinians from Kuwait and threw the Palestinians and the PLO into a severe economic crisis, largely ending the armed struggle:Anyone who wonders why the Intifada died down or whether it should be continued must first think how to guarantee the reasons for its continuation. One must consider the people suffering from both occupation and poverty at the same time and ask why the masses took to the streets to proudly celebrate the [Oslo] accord. Do any of those who demand that the Intifada continue know what it means to go for six years without schools, universities, or jobs?”[48]

In 1994, Abbas admitted that Jewish immigration to Israel did not stem only from imperialist efforts by European powers and from the intimidation of Jews from Arab countries, but also from religious and ideological motivations of the immigrants themselves. The Arabs must bravely face this fact, he said, and come to terms with the need to compromise with Israel due to circumstances including its international legitimacy, its nuclear capacity, the fact that the Arab world has accepted it, and the weakness of the Palestinian people.

Abbas described the existence of “the Jewish state” as an undeniable fact: We are faced with a settlement that is unlike any other in the world. It is a settlement that does not only serve international colonialism but is also essentially different from it. It is a colonialist Jewish national settlement driven by personal, national and religious ideology. Thanks to many factors, it has succeeded in establishing a Jewish state in Palestine [emphasis added – E.M.] with a population largely born within it. Many wish to deny the implications of this important fact. Our fundamental rejection of Jewish nationality in Palestine does not mean that we should ignore millions of patriotic Jewish settlers as a fact that must be taken into account when we decide on policies. This is the uncomfortable truth: there is a national conflict in Palestine.”[49]

Abbas outlined the development of the Palestinian leadership’s position on talks with Israel. First, in 1977, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) – the legislative body of the PLO – agreed to the PLO’s proposal to meet with all anti-Zionist elements in Israel. In later sessions, this was expanded to include “all Israeli elements that believe in the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state”. Abbas thought this wasn’t enough and that the Palestinians should also talk to their fiercest opponents in Israel. That is why he initiated meetings with members of Knesset from the Right and the Left.

After Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections and the right-wing rose to power in Israel, Abbas wrote: "I want to meet with Ariel Sharon to understand his views from up close. I also want to meet with [Refael] Eitan and Ghandi [Rehavam Ze’evi] and the settler leaders, because they are the ones who still object to our goals. It is crucial to enter into dialogue with them. It won’t cost us anything, we will simply get to know the other half of Israeli society and they will get to know us".[50] 

When questioned about the wisdom of using Palestinian citizens of Israel for the national struggle, he stated furiously that it was “a huge mistake”. He explained that these citizens are part of Israeli society and can serve as “a bridge to peace”. Treating them as no different from the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza only serves as an excuse for the Israeli Right to demand their expulsion.[51]  

Conclusions

Abbas’ prolific writing over forty years reflects a natural process of change that leaders undergo throughout the world. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a Palestinian intellectual who downplayed the extent of the Holocaust and believed that Zionism was a colonialist movement forced upon most Jews in the world. The turning point was the 1991 Madrid talks and the cautious discussions leading up to them with civil society actors in Israel. Since then, Abbas has grown into a pragmatic statesman who accepts the existence of Israel as a fact and recognizes Israeli society as unified, although heterogeneous. Over the years, Abbas gradually changed his views and courageously flew in the face of consensus when he claimed that Jewish immigration was the result of personal, religious, and ideological convictions and that the Arab world must face this fact.                  

On a practical level, Abbas has belonged to the moderate faction within Fatah from the outset. Even when he favored armed struggle, he saw it as one of many means and not necessarily the most important one. He supported intentional attacks upon Israeli civilians at a time when the PLO was building up its power in Lebanon, but years later acknowledged the massive damage that suicide attacks had done to Israeli trust in the peace process. This led him to call for disarming the military wing of Hamas. Abbas insisted on differentiating between “Jews” and “Zionists” and distinguishing Israeli citizens who were legitimate targets at wartime from Jews living abroad who were illegitimate targets. This set him apart from most Fatah members in the 1970s and 1980s, and certainly from Hamas in the 1990s and early 21st century.

Although Abbas never officially retracted the claims he made in his doctoral dissertation concerning secret ties between Nazism and Zionism, in a February 2014 meeting with Israeli students in Ramallah he rejected the claim that he was a Holocaust denier and admitted that millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust.[52] Less than two weeks later, on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, he announced via the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime against humanity” in modern times.[53]                  

Abbas never provided a written explanation for his change of approach to the issue of Jews from Islamic countries. Apparently, years of peace talks with Israeli leaders of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi origins proved to him that Jewish-Israeli society is less divided along ethnic lines than he previously believed. At the very least, he appears to have understood that history cannot be turned back and that the Zionist project is a source of attraction and identification for Jews from Arab countries, certainly more than those countries in their current state.                 

The claim is often heard in Israel that Abbas promotes peace in English but war in Arabic. This is put forth by figures who may hear Arabic but do not understand it, apparently regurgitating justified criticism of Arafat’s doublespeak. Some of these people would certainly be glad to quote selective passages from this paper while ignoring others. Yet an informed debate on Israel’s attitude to the Palestinian leadership should face the fact that Mahmoud Abbas’ views have developed and grown more moderate over time. 


[1] Mahmoud Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya (Ramallah: Bilsan [1977], 2011), 107.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] All excerpts from Abbas freely translated.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Mahmoud Abbas, Istithmar Al-Fuz (Ramallah: Bilsan [1981], 2011), 27.

[8] Mahmoud Abbas, Matlub Kiren Hayesud Arabi (Ramallah: Bilsan [1982], 2011), 12.

[9] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 69.

[10] Ibid., 97.

[11] Mahmoud Abbas, Isra’il Ujanub Afriqiyah Al-Unsuriyatain (Ramallah: Bilsan [1989], 2011), 6-7.

[12] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 19.

[13] Ibid., 50.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 73.

[16] Abbas, Istithmar Al-Fuz, 45.

[17] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 110.

[18] Ibid., 84-85.

[19] Mahmoud Abbas, Al-Laja’oun Al-Falistiniyoun-Al-Yahoud, (Ramallah: Bilsan [1981], 2011), 28.

[20] Ibid., 24.

[21] See, for example, Hillel Cohen & Haim Watzman, Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929, (Waltham, Massachusetts : Brandeis, 2015), 228.

[22] Abbas, Istithmar Al-Fuz, 31.

[23] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 55.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.,107.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mahmoud Abbas, Hadha Al-Itisalat – Limadha? (Ramallah: Bilsan [1988], 2011), 4.

[28] Ibid., 5.

[29] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 108-115.

[30] Abbas, Matlub Kiren Hayesud Arabi , 14.

[31] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 109.

[32] Ibid., 112.

[33] Ibid., 113.

[34] Ibid., 114.

[35] Ido Zelkovitz, The Fatah Movement: Islam, Nationality, and the Politics of Armed Struggle (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2012), 42 (Hebrew).

[36] Mahmoud Abbas, Moubahathat Al-Islam Al-Falastiniyah Al-Isra’iliyah (Ramallah: Bilsan [1992], 2011), 6, 8-9.

[37] Abbas, Hadha Al-Itisalat – Limadha?, 9.

[38] Abbas, Moubahathat Al-Islam Al-Falastiniyah Al-Isra’iliyah, 13.

[39] Abbas, Istithmar Al-Fuz, 21.

[40] Ibid., 28.

[41] Ibid., 27.

[42] Ibid., 41.

[43] Abbas, A-Sahyouniya Bidaya Wanihaya, 115.

[44] Mahmoud Abbas, Ba’ed Thalath Sanawat Ala Oslo (Ramallah: Bilsan [1996], 2011), 30-31.

[45] Mahmoud Abbas, Tariq Oslo (Ramallah: Bilsan, 2011), 21.

[46] Abbas, Ba’ed Thalath Sanawat Ala Oslo, 35.

[47] Abbas, Tariq Oslo, 18.

[48] Mahmoud Abbas, Al-Itifaq fi Ayoun Al-Mu’aradha (Ramallah: Bilsan [1994], 2011), 8.  

[49] Ibid., 14.

[50] Abbas, Ba’ed Thalath Sanawat Ala Oslo, 13-14.

[51] Ibid., 15.

[52] Raphael Ahren, “Abbas: We don’t want to divide Jerusalem, or flood Israel with refugees,” The Times of Israel, February 16, 2014, www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-we-dont-want-to-divide-jerusalem-or-flood-israel-with-refugees/

[53] Jeffrey Heller, “Abbas calls Holocaust ‘most heinous crime’ against humanity,” Reuters, April 27, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-palestinian-israel-holocaust-idUSBREA3Q08E20140427

 
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