Israel can engage with Mahmoud Abbas despite Holocaust revisionism - opinion

Abbas may parrot antisemitic myths and deliberately trivialize the Holocaust, but realpolitik dictates that Israel’s government engage with him if it furthers our national and security goals.

 BARACK OBAMA is flanked by Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, 2010. Prime ministers, including Netanyahu, negotiated with the Palestinian leader when they thought it was in Israel’s interest to do so, says the writer.  (photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)
BARACK OBAMA is flanked by Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, 2010. Prime ministers, including Netanyahu, negotiated with the Palestinian leader when they thought it was in Israel’s interest to do so, says the writer.
(photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)

Mahmoud Abbas’s recent foray into Holocaust revisionism during his August visit to Germany led former prime minister Naftali Bennett to declare anew that the Palestinian leader cannot be Israel’s partner in talks. Yet Abbas’s espousal of a blatantly erroneous antisemitic narrative – however enraging  – nevertheless does not automatically disqualify him from being Israel’s interlocutor.

On August 16, Abbas participated in a press conference with German chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he was asked to condemn the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

Like many politicians facing a tough question, Abbas chose to change the subject. But instead of pivoting to safer ground, he dived into material eminently more problematic and accused Israel of committing “50 massacres, 50 Holocausts.”

The belated clarification issued by his office was a diplomatic necessity, the wording carefully chosen for damage control. But there is little doubt that Abbas’s extemporaneous remarks accurately represented his true thinking. 

For the Palestinian leader, Holocaust revisionism is nothing new. His 1982 PhD dissertation from the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, released as a book in 1984, asserted that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust. He declared the murder of six million Jews a “myth,” the number of victims inflated to serve Israel’s interests. The real figure, per Abbas, was “a few hundred thousand.” 

 PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during his news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin on August 16.  (credit: Lisi Niesner/Reuters) PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during his news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin on August 16. (credit: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Over the years, Abbas has repeatedly revisited such themes. In 2018, at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, he stated that European Jews were massacred because of their “social role related to usury and banks.” 

Unfortunately, Abbas’s comments are reflective of a Palestinian society plagued by antisemitic stereotypes, where spurious references to the Holocaust are pervasive. 

It is not just the ubiquitous charge that the IDF acts with Nazi-type brutality, or that the crimes of the Holocaust are deliberately magnified for political purposes; rather, it is widely accepted that the Palestinians themselves, and not the Jews, are the ultimate victims of the Holocaust

In this skewed narrative, the Palestinians lost their homeland to pay for Europe’s crimes against the Jews, as if their political leadership was on the right side of history during the genocide.

Forgotten is Grand Mufti Amin Husseini, the preeminent Palestinian political leader of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, who was the Arab world’s chief Nazi exponent and spent World War II in Berlin, broadcasting Hitler’s propaganda to the Middle East. 

Husseini was aware of, and supported, the Holocaust, encouraging Bosnian Muslims to volunteer for the Waffen SS. At the end of the war, he fled Europe to escape prosecution by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. He eventually surfaced in Gaza in 1948 to be elected president of the All-Palestine Government, despite his notorious Nazi affiliations. 

The current Palestinian leader has nothing critical to say about Husseini’s wartime activities; instead, Abbas prefers to propagate bogus theories of Zionist-Nazi collaboration. But while Abbas’s revisionism is very real, he nonetheless can be seen as one in a long list of unsavory characters with whom Zionists have negotiated.

Zionist negotiations with antisemites, pogrom participants

In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, met with tsarist interior minister Vyacheslav Plehve, who many held responsible for the Kishinev pogrom. Herzl had few illusions about his counterpart, but the goal was to enlist Russia’s support for a Jewish state that could absorb the masses of persecuted Jews of the tsarist empire.

In 1921, Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky met with the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura, who had been accused of complicity in pogroms in which thousands of Jews were murdered. Jabotinsky sought Petliura’s support for the establishment of Jewish military units that could protect Ukraine’s Jews from future pogroms.

Most well known, in 1933, Haim Arlosoroff, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, negotiated an arrangement with Germany’s new Nazi regime. The Ha’avara Agreement enabled the emigration of some 60,000 German Jews to Mandatory Palestine, saving their lives.  

THE AFOREMENTIONED negotiations provided Israel’s enemies with ammunition for allegations of Zionist collusion with antisemites. Such accusations were a staple of Soviet anti-Israel propaganda throughout the 1970s and 1980s (when Abbas wrote his PhD in Moscow) and were echoed by the hard left across the West, reemerging in the UK in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party

Zionists weren't complicit, they practiced realpolitik

But rather than proving a nefarious complicity between Zionists and Jew-haters, these diplomatic efforts by Zionist leaders merely demonstrate the omnipresence of political realism in all international relations. This type of realpolitik, decried by the Soviets when exercised by Zionists, was a practice in which they themselves were consummate specialists. 

In 1917, following Russia’s democratic February revolution, the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin urgently needed to return home. This necessitated a near impossible journey through Europe while World War I raged, from neutral Switzerland, across Germany, to Russia – the latter two countries at war.

To make the trip, a special sealed train was authorized by Berlin. The Russian Bolsheviks had not become ideological bedfellows with German militarists, but they shared a common goal: getting Russia out of the war. Lenin was ready to cooperate with the kaiser if it helped further his proletariat revolution.

Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, demonstrated a similar cold realism. In August 1939, Moscow signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, initiating a de facto alliance with Nazi Germany that gave Hitler a free hand to attack Poland and Western Europe. In return, the pact provided Stalin some much-needed time to rearm. 

The Wehrmacht’s assault on the Soviet Union in June 1941 led Stalin to embrace arch-anticommunist Winston Churchill. The British prime minister had tried to destroy the Soviet regime at its birth, but the joint objective of defeating the Germans was the priority, and the Kremlin partnered with the paragon of British colonialism. 

The Soviets’ Cold War talk of a Zionist-Nazi conspiracy was also cynical realpolitik, calculated to undermine the legitimacy of America’s most important military ally in the Middle East.

Abbas’s revisionist diatribes, also designed to delegitimize the Jewish state, were no secret to the Israeli leadership. Yet prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu all negotiated with the Palestinian leader when they thought it was in Israel’s interest to do so

The same logic applies today. Abbas is not necessarily more objectionable than Plehve or Petliura. He may parrot antisemitic myths and deliberately trivialize the Holocaust, but realpolitik dictates that Israel’s government engage with him if it furthers our national and security goals – though always with eyes wide open. 

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.