January 7, 2005 - Is Mahmoud Abbas the great new hope for peace in the Middle East?
Since the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas has become the focus of much hope. Reputedly a "moderate," Abbas has inspired a hope of messianic proportions, not only in the immediate region but in the world community. The hope is that he will succeed where his predecessor has failed, and that his new leadership will finally break the impasse. But in the Middle East, "moderate" is a very relative term. Moderate compared to what?
In his campaign for the Palestinian presidency, Abbas has given some alarming indications of what his "moderation" might really mean. He has emphatically refused to crack down on Palestinian terrorist groups, contrary to the requirements of the Roadmap. In fact, he has embraced the terrorists. He promised to shield them from Israeli forces. He defended them, calling them "heroes," stating at a rally in Gaza (Rafah) that "We will not forget the wanted, the heroes.... They are fighting for freedom." In fact, he has made campaign appearances with members of terrorist groups.
Abbas has always been known for his strong support of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. In this he has not changed. At another Gaza rally (Gaza City) he stated that "We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home."
The call for a Palestinian right of return is a transparent call for Israel's destruction, and Abbas knows it. It also defies common sense. The whole idea of a Palestinian state is to provide a "homeland" for Palestinians. That is where the refugees should return. To demand a right for millions of Palestinian refugees to come to Israel is in effect to demand two Palestinian states, one alongside Israel and one in place of it. Israel has already absorbed the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, without demanding either special rights or compensations. It is time that Palestinians accepted their share of the responsiblity.
More recently, Abbas has referred to Israel as "the Zionist enemy." The terrorists themselves are known for using this kind of rhetoric. In his campaign Abbas has chosen to appeal to their sympathies and to embrace their cause.
Many have made excuses for Abbas: he doesn't really mean it, he only says these things to get himself elected. Such an argument contains an obvious flaw. If, to get elected, Abbas must appeal to the most radical Palestinian sentiments, then clearly the Palestinians as a people are not ready for peace and are not willing to become a partner for peace. Making such excuses for Abbas is also a typical Western mistake. The West has been burned time and again because it failed to take Arabs at their word, to believe that Arabs mean what they say, even if it is not what one wishes to hear. Whether we like their positions or not, we must respect the Arabs enough to take what they say seriously. To do any less is to be guilty of the condescension and paternalism that liberally-minded Westerners themselves condemn in our relations with non-Western peoples.
The danger in all this is that the Palestinian public relations machine has successfully sold Abbas to the world as a reasonable man, a man of moderation, whose failure could be due only to Israel's perfidy. We need to look beyond the propaganda intended for Western consumption. We need to watch carefully, to see whether Abbas fulfills his campaign promises. No less than with Arafat, we need to listen to what Abbas says to his own people in their own language when he thinks the world isn't listening. Then, if the peace process fails once again, we may begin to understand why.
Barzak, Ibrahim. "Abbas: Refugees Will Return to Israel." Associated Press, January 3, 2005.
Fettmann, Eric. "Abbas Turns Nasty." New York Post, January 5, 2005.
Myre, Greg. "Abbas Sees Duty to Shield the Militants." New York Times, January 2, 2005.
Peace with Realism