We Don’t Need a Palestinian Personality Cult

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting of Fatah Revolutionary Council, in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, February 6, 2019.

What are you doing to the Palestinians, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? Is a personality cult what’s needed right now to end the occupation and establish a democratic Palestinian state that will benefit its residents?

Jack Khoury wrote in Haaretz on Sunday about a booklet called “Our Role Model, the President,” which includes quotes from Abbas and which is to be distributed in PA schools. The truth is that such creativity is hard to find among other Arab leaders; we’re used to titles like “comrade leader” and “brotherly leader.” Even former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who issued the Green Book, which expounded on his weird theories, didn’t dare, and probably didn’t even think, of referring to himself as a role model.

It seems as if the harder Israel hits on the Palestinians, the more obtuse and self-confident Palestinian leaders become. This is also the case with Hamas in Gaza, with its suppression of the demonstrations there. In his time, Ghawwar, a Syrian comic figure, would say: The state beats me, I beat my wife, my wife beats the kids and they start fights with the other kids in the neighborhood. The wheel turns, and the people are ground up.

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But if we’re already talking about a role model, why should this great benefit be reserved solely for the Palestinians? Why not call Abbas, “the sun of all peoples,” or at least, “the sun of the Middle East?” Why not “beloved leader” or “great leader” like in North Korea? The PA leadership’s modesty raises lots of questions.

Is this the state about which generations of Palestinians dreamed? Is this the state they sought to release themselves from the burden of the Ottomans, the British and the Israelis? Is this the “homeland of revolutionaries” that Palestinian poet Abdul Karim al-Karmi dreamed of? Is this the Palestine envisioned by poets Ibrahim Tuqan, Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and Tawfiq Ziad? These poets expressed a longing for freedom, not just from the foreign occupier, but from domestic dictatorship as well.

Abbas got enormous credit when he bravely said in public what other people only said in private, while saying the opposite out loud. He sought a popular struggle without firearms and said so outright. His policy has embarrassed the Israeli government, whose playing field is built on power and more power. Moreover, this man, whom militaristic Israel has described as a plucked chicken, is courageously standing up to the United States, foiling U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” and forcing Arab leaders to withdraw their shameful support for the deal despite intense American pressure.

Given all this, why is he stepping into this swamp of sycophancy? It seems that in essence, the governing structure surrounding Abbas is based on the pan-Arab mode – a model based on adulation of the leader, a lack of criticism and the distancing of anyone who thinks critically and independently. All that remains are the yes-men and the applauders. It’s sad to see Palestinian leader Saeb Erekat, who has been leading a brilliant public diplomacy campaign for the Palestinians, proudly waving this booklet.

And if the PA under Israeli occupation, which closes it in from all sides, conducts itself this way what will happen when Palestine is sovereign like the other Arab states? This is very worrisome and it’s very important to explain that the flip side of a personality cult is the suppression of free speech and of independent thinkers.

Let me also beseech all my media colleagues: Please try to bury this item, lest it reach the ears of our own esteemed leader, or worse, the ears of his stellar minister, Miri Regev. Minister Regev might yet pounce on the idea and we’ll end up with another booklet entitled, “Our role model and his war against domestic and foreign evildoers.”