Potential Abbas Successor Talks Peace but Refuses to Condemn Terrorism

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Jibril Rajoub, Michael Herzog and Tamara Cofman Wittes at an Israel Policy Forum discussion on the two-state solution, New York, April 5, 2017.
Jibril Rajoub, Michael Herzog and Tamara Cofman Wittes at an Israel Policy Forum discussion on the two-state solution, New York, April 5, 2017.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK Jibril Rajoub, secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central committee and a man considered a likely successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was asked many times Wednesday night to renounce recent statements praising terrorists for their murder of Israeli Jews.

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Each time, he dodged the question.

Rajoub appeared with Israeli Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog, a longtime peace negotiator for Israel, at a discussion hosted by the Israel Policy Forum. It was the inaugural Joseph Forum, an invitation-only event examining aspects of the two-state solution, IPF’s focus. The discussion was moderated by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who under President Barack Obama served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

The conversation at the Upper East Side’s Harmonie Club centered, of course, on prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and included Herzog’s assessment of Israeli and Palestinian politics. The veteran of many failed peace negotiations said two new factors could lead to a shift: unprecedented cooperation with Israel from Arab states, and the Trump administration’s plans that are still unclear.

“They don’t know much but they are learning,” Herzog said to chuckles from the audience.

But the real focus for many in the room was Rajoub’s rhetoric, which in both the distant and recent past has lauded Palestinian terrorists. In 2015 and 2016 he praised the Palestinians who killed Israelis in the so-called knife intifada of those years, calling them “a crown on our heads.”

Israeli forensic police stand next to the body of a Palestinian assailant who was shot dead following a reported stabbing attack next to Jerusalem’s Old City Jaffa Gate on December 23, 2015.Credit: AFP

In his capacity as chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and head of the Palestinian Council for Sport and Youth Affairs, Rajoub has a long history of naming sports events for Palestinian terrorists. Most recently, in December 2015, he named a table tennis tournament after Muhannad Halabi, who just two months earlier had sparked the knife intifada with his murder of two Israeli Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Rajoub spent 15 years in Israeli prison after being sentenced to life for throwing a grenade at an Israeli army bus. He was released in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange and today is considered a likely successor to 82-year-old Abbas. Last month he marked International Women’s Day by calling on Palestinian women to look to two others as role models: one lionized for becoming the first female plane hijacker in 1969 and another who in 1978 led a bus hijacking that killed 37 Israelis, including a dozen children.

Difficult conversations

Before Wednesday’s discussion got underway, the chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum, Susie Gelman, said “we at IPF unequivocally reject Palestinian incitement as harmful to peace efforts . I have a strong objection to some of his rhetoric in the past. How can he use that language and pursue peace?” she wondered, adding that still "we must not shy away from difficult conversations.”

At the end of the evening an audience member, Alan Eisenman, challenged Rajoub to renounce, in Arabic to his own community, his praise of murderers of Israeli civilians.

In response to both Gelman and Eisenman, Rajoub dodged and weaved. “It is the responsibility of leaders from both sides to be loyal to their mission. Israel and Palestine should be two political entities side by side, rather than a lord and a slave,” he said in response to Gelman. “I am glad to be invited to this event in spite of the criticism. Incitement exists on both sides.”

In response to Eisenman, Rajoub added, “I wish you did not ask your question. You have to be sure that this is not the right way to make business in the Middle East. Please look at the other side’s victims, even civilians . The first terror attack after Oslo was Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli doctor.”

Head of Palestinian football Association Jibril Rajoub in Ramallah. Monday, May 25, 2015.Credit: AP

Rajoub is also controversial in the Arab world. As soon as he landed in New York Wednesday he was served with a lawsuit and court summons relating to the alleged torture and death of a Palestinian-American when Rajoub headed the PA’s Preventive Security Force.

In February he was refused entry to Egypt, which he tried to enter to take part in an Arab League conference in Cairo. Rajoub is slated to meet with U.S. State Department officials this week in gatherings to preface President Donald Trump’s meeting next week with Abbas.

Herzog said Rajoub’s “statements over the last year and a half, hailing terrorists as heroes, are indefensible.” He welcomed Rajoub’s statement, weak as it was, “as a first step in the right direction.”

Rajoub expressed optimism about Hamas’ willingness to agree to PA policies, including formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist and a renouncing of violence, anticipating that the Palestinians’ planned unity government will hold. “Hamas is isolated and vulnerable in the region in a way they were not before,” he said. “Political Islam has failed in the whole region. A two state solution is the only deal for everyone.”

Incentives for violence

Herzog did not assess the situation quite so positively. “I am less hopeful about Hamas, I am sad to say. Hamas is about to release new policy, which I read in Arabic. It says ‘we will never relinquish our claim to all of historic Palestine, will never recognize Israel and will never disavow armed struggle.’”

Herzog said he believes that if a peace deal is sought more incrementally, progress is possible if Arab states are involved in every step.

Susie Gelman, chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum, speaking in New York on April 5, 2017. Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Wittes of the Brookings Institution said she often speaks with members of Congress and the first question is almost always why the Palestinian Authority pays the families of imprisoned and dead terrorists. The fact the United States is the PA’s main funder is difficult for many members of Congress given that much of the money goes to terrorists’ families, she said.

“This is incentivizing violence and terrorism,” Herzog added. The PA is spending “over $300 million a year” in this way, and “the worse the crime the more they collect.”

“It is difficult to explain but I will try,” Rajoub responded. “We have a social responsibility and give assistance to families of prisoners no matter why they are in jail . what about the settlements? I can’t understand that. As soon as we have a peace treaty everything will change. There will be no more funding for anyone who violates this historic agreement.”

But Eisenman later told Haaretz: “It is so irrational and infuriating that he refused to answer. As if anyone is going to make peace with people who refuse to denounce terrorism. There’s no chance he’s going to say it in Arabic, because he believes it and he wants to get elected.”

Herzog concluded the event by obliquely addressing Rajoub. “I hope leaders will draw lessons from different mistakes. We ultimately have to think about the young generation,” he said. “I want to send a message of hope. Even with all my pessimism.”

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