Abbas' Holocaust Revisionism Shows His Moral Failure. But His Political Failures Are Much Worse

Once a weak, dogmatic Holocaust revisionist autocrat, always a weak, dogmatic Holocaust revisionist autocrat. Palestinians deserve a better leader – and Israel’s moral well-being and security depends on it too

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 30, 2018.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 30, 2018.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For years, the dirty secret of Middle Eastern diplomacy has been that Abu Mazen is useless. No one wanted to say it in public, but at some point, in strictly off-record conversations, senior American or European diplomats would admit that “Abbas isn’t helping. He’s not helping at all and is probably incapable.”

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The truth about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that he is a corrupt, obdurate and risk-averse autocrat, was never reflected in the policy of Western governments. Abbas, everyone insisted, is a great partner.

And there were valid reasons for sticking with Abu Mazen. For a start, he is the elected leader of the Palestinians. Sure, the last election was 12 years ago, but that’s still more of a mandate than most Arab leaders you have to deal with.

Then, there was the one important thing that Abbas did, and that was to disavow violence as a means for achieving the Palestinians’ goals.

A third major reason why Abbas continued to get credit was that he is largely powerless, certainly, when compared with the Israeli leaders he has faced, who control nearly every facet of the lives of five million Palestinians. And when the Israeli leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, then Abbas is amply matched for obduracy.

But now everyone is suddenly admitting that we probably will never get an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal until a new generation of Palestinian leaders comes along. Just because Abbas once again aired his views on the Holocaust.

It’s surprising that people are so surprised. He never repudiated his PhD, written at Moscow’s Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in the early 1980s, that claimed the Zionist movement was Nazi Germany’s eager partner in the Holocaust.

The misconception over the years has been that Abu Mazen was once a Holocaust denier since reformed. But the truth, as we were reminded by his speech on Tuesday, was that he never denied the fact that the Holocaust happened, or that it was a terrible crime - only that some Jews, the money-lenders, brought it upon themselves, and that other Jews, the Zionists, were accomplices. He was, and remains, a Holocaust revisionist.

Actually, if you need a reason to continue pinning forlorn hopes to Abbas, then his latest diatribe against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust shouldn’t deny you of one.

The Netanyahu government has warm relations with at least two governments which actively pursue Holocaust revision campaigns and legislation - Hungary and Poland

That hasn’t stopped Netanyahu hobnobbing with their leaders. Or with the Austrian’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has neo-Nazis in his cabinet  and of course, with Donald Trump, who can’t bring himself to denounce his own Neo-Nazi supporters

How is Abbas different to any of these leaders that Netanyahu is happy to deal with, despite their Holocaust revisionism and willful collaboration with anti-Semites?

The conclusion that a peace agreement will never be reached as long as Abu Mazen is Palestinian president is correct. But it has little to do with him clinging to a fallacious victim-blaming narrative of the Holocaust (which he didn’t even invent: it has been for decades a standard narrative of Marxist historians).

Abbas had his chance to do that a decade ago with Israel’s last centrist government, when Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were prepared to build on disengagement from Gaza and go further than any Israeli leaders before them.

Abbas has always been too scared, too weak and too dogmatic to cross the Rubicon. He managed to lose Gaza to Hamas and then squander eight years of goodwill from the most pro-Palestinian U.S. administration in four decades, and frustrate Barack Obama and his state secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He has been Netanyahu’s perfect partner in creating the stagnant status quo, and it should have been clear years ago that under Abbas, the Palestinians have been on a hiding to nothing.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene and announced he’s moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, it should have been obvious Abbas had lost game, set and match to Netanyahu. If Abbas was serious about making a deal, for the good of his own people, his views on the Holocaust’s origins and the Zionist role in it, really wouldn’t matter that much. At least now there’s no longer any need to keep up pretenses.

With the trio of Abbas, Netanyahu and Trump, there’s zero prospect of any progress. Basically, no one of any consequence is working now on trying to achieve a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Europeans are divided and preoccupied with their own troubles. The main Arab countries are much more interested in partnering with Israel against Iran, than doing anything for the Palestinians. As it is, they never provided them with much more than lip-service.

The narrative that the entire center-left has been pushing for decades, that at some point the international pressure on Israel would become unbearable that it would have to ultimately give up its presence in most of the West Bank, dismantle the settlements outside the blocs and make some kind of compromise with the Palestinians on Jerusalem, has been totally disproven.

There has been no “diplomatic tsunami” as Ehud Barak once predicted. The BDS “movement” is morally tainted and proven a miserable failure. Instead of becoming diplomatically isolated, Israel’s foreign relations are flourishing like never before, under what is one of its most right-wing governments ever. The Palestinians have lost, yet again. But has Israel won?

For those of us who believe that even at this point, with the Palestinians divided, isolated and its leadership aging and discredited, Israel would still be much better off ending its 51 year occupation of another people, this has to be a much belated moment of reckoning.

Our goal is more justified than ever - the occupation erodes Israeli democracy and deepens the brutalization of our society. But the entire strategy of threatening Israelis with diplomatic pressure and pariahdom has foundered on the rocks of reality.

Some cling to the forlorn hope that hope is still around the corner. That the international attitude towards Israel and the Palestinians will change, that whoever replaces Trump will reverse course. And perhaps they’re right. But if it didn’t happen after decades of critical coverage of the conflict in the western media and during eight years of the Obama administration, what basis is there to assume that the next president, even if less “pro-Israel” than Trump, will have any more of an appetite to deal with the conflict.

With the exception of a few news organizations that valiantly try to keep up serious coverage, the world has tired of the conflict. The Palestinians are at the lowest place on the global agenda they’ve been at since the eve of the First Intifada in 1987. Waiting around for that to change is no solution. It could take decades, if it ever happens. The world will have much bigger problems to deal with, and indifference towards our conflict is much more likely than engagement.

And yet, that doesn’t mean the occupation is here to stay forever. In every single survey, a clear majority of Israelis still say they don’t want to continue occupying the Palestinians, and they are willing to dismantle settlements. They just don’t believe such a deal is currently possible.

It’s the same two-thirds majority which supported disengagement from Gaza under Ariel Sharon in 2005. Most Israelis aren’t wedded to perpetually holding the West Bank. But to be persuaded to vote for parties that are willing to make the necessary concessions to end the occupation, they have to be convinced that Israel will be better off.

Empty threats of international isolation have failed. A positive case for how Israel will be better off in every way without the occupation must be made and making it means changing nearly the entire language of the Israeli left.

It also means working seriously with new allies. Not with foreign governments who are happy to fund Israeli human rights organizations but will never put sufficient pressure on Israel to change its policy.

The only real ally Israelis who are prepared to work to ending the occupation have today is the Jewish Diaspora. Working with Jews around the world to articulate a better message for Israel’s future is right now the only way to find that new language and convince the majority of Israelis that the Palestinians may have lost, but so have we.

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