Deciphering Abbas

Commentators from various quarters pounced on recent comment by the PA president as evidence that he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But are they right?

Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
As Israeli-Palestinian final-status talks are underway in earnest in Jerusalem, much heat has been generated by a recent statement made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Speaking to mostly Egyptian reporters in Cairo on July 29, Abbas is quoted as having said:  "In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands."  It didn’t take long for the fireworks to begin.
Commentators from various quarters – particularly those unfriendly, if not downright hostile, to the very idea of a Palestinian state – pounced on the statement as hard evidence that president Abbas is, in reality, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  The Israeli news site Arutz Sheva 7 displayed the headline “Abbas: Palestine will be Judenrein: Palestinian Authority head presents reporters with a racist and hateful vision of a future Palestinian state.” Several other news media sites and columnists echoed the “Judenrein” cry, applying to Abbas’s comment the abhorrent term used by the Nazis in promoting a Germany cleansed of Jews. Where else but nowhere, they ask, will negotiations lead with a Palestinian president who spews such bile?
Granted, the timing and phrasing of Abbas’s comment offered easy fodder for those inclined to hear and see only, or primarily, the obstacles to peace. But viewing the statement as evidence of a “racist and hateful” vision of a Palestine cleansed of Jews is, at best, a dubious proposition. The Los Angeles Times’ July 30 report conveys what certainly seems the more apt understanding of Abbas’ words: a “vision of a state of Palestine [that] does not include any Israeli settlers or soldiers.”  Likewise, Reuters on July 30 reported that “Abbas said that no Israeli settlers or border forces could remain in a future Palestinian state.”
Needless to say, the end of Israel’s protracted occupation of the West Bank – its ongoing military presence, its obtrusive checkpoints, its still-expanding settlement enterprise, reaching deep into the occupied territories – is central to the establishment of an autonomous and viable Palestinian state.  Framed by this overarching Palestinian objective, Abbas’s statement, offered on the eve of renewed negotiations, is most reasonably deciphered as Reuters and the LA Times did: no more Israeli military presence, and no more Israeli settlement presence in the Palestinian state. In other words, an end to the trappings of occupation.
In Cairo, Abbas made clear that while he wishes to see no Israeli security forces in the future Palestinian state, he’s open to a UN peacekeeping-style multi-national presence, like those now operating on Israel’s borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. “We are with that,” he said. He also embraced the deployment of NATO forces on the border with Jordan, “as a security guarantee to us and them [Israel].” At the same time, he made clear that continued Israeli settlement building on territory in play in the upcoming negotiations remains undeniably problematic.
Those predisposed to ascribe nefarious motives to Abbas, regardless of what he says, aren’t likely to be dissuaded from their views. But let’s not forget that both Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert – not to mention our own President Barack Obama – all see Abbas as a real partner for peace.  This is a man who, at great personal and political risk, in November, 2012 declared: “I am a refugee, I live in Ramallah, the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel."  President Peres, who has known the PA president for thirty years, noted the huge importance of his rejection of terrorism and acknowledgement that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem will not be on Israeli territory.  "Abbas's statements,” he said, “are in line with the positions of most Israelis…as such we need to bravely extend our hand out in peace to a leader like Abbas, with whom Israel has a real hope for peace.” A few weeks later Peres – who served twice as prime minister of Israel – announced: "No one will change my opinion about Abu Mazen (Abbas), even if they say I cannot express it because I'm the president."
Israel Prize-winning novelist Amos Oz recently observed that what Israelis and Palestinians need is a “fair, if painful, divorce.”  As he envisions it, instead of the current arrangement – one characterized by submission and domination – the divorced parties will live “side by side, and not one on top of the other.”
Interpreted fairly, President Abbas’ words in Cairo are far better understood through Oz’s poignant metaphor than through one that alludes instead, to racism and hate.
The author is an attorney and from 2007-2013 was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.