What makes Mahmoud Abbas so special? Why is he Israel’s chief negotiating partner?
These are not rhetorical questions, and, as a supporter of the two state solution, I don’t mean to suggest that Israel shouldn’t be negotiating. My question is quite literal: Why Abbas?
As a graduate student, he wrote a book denying the Holocaust. Far from outgrowing his youthful, um, exuberance, Abbas reiterated in 2013 that Zionists and Nazis were very much working together before World War II.
Even though the peace process is often justified as a way to ensure Palestinians’ rights, Abbas is a serial abuser of those very rights. As Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has documented, there were 19 reported cases of prisoners being tortured in prisons in the West Bank. Abbas and his cronies routinely arrest journalists for “slander” and “insults.” Abbas’s Preventive Security Service—in this case, very-very “preventive”—arrested Palestinian journalist Tarek Khamis for criticizing Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a Facebook post. The PA has also been working to block websites that are critical of Abbas. Not to mention the Palestinian Authorities’ demented anti-gay policies, or its insistence that any future Palestinian state be Judenrein. It’s hard to imagine that Abbas, or whoever succeeds him, will be more tolerant of dissent and minorities in an autonomous Palestinian state.
In addition to trampling the rights of Palestinians, Abbas appears to have an aversion to democracy. After Yasser Arafat selected Abbas to serve as Prime Minister in 2003, Abbas won the 2005 Palestinian presidential election. That means that he’s now in the ninth year of his four year term, with no elections on the horizon. Also note that Fatah has had two leaders, Arafat and Abbas, in its 55 year history. When Fatah was formed, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States and David Ben Gurion was prime minister. “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton was the top song that year. From Johnny Horton to Tony Horton, Fatah has changed leaders twice. This indicates, to me at least, that Fatah’s leaders aren’t all that interested in democracy, traditionally understood.
Arafat and Abbas have turned the Palestinian Authority into a kleptocracy. Arafat and his putrid widow became likely billionaires, courtesy of American and European taxpayers and the Swiss banking system, and Abbas has continued the practice of padding his pockets with Western dollars and euros. According to a former Palestinian intelligence official, Abbas’s cronies have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from their own people, and Yasser Arafat’s former-advisor claims that Abbas has personally stolen approximately $100 million. The magnitude of Palestinian leaders’ peculation would make Tony Soprano blush.
In addition to being a kleptocracy, the Palestinian Authority is also a nepotocracy. In an expose for Foreign Policy, Jonatahn Schanzer describes how Abbas’s sons have grown fabulously wealth thanks to their proximity to power. Abbas’s sons responded, predictably, by suing Foreign Policy.
Autocratic and corrupt leaders aren’t exactly a rare occurrence in the Middle East, and the U.S. has allied itself with quite a few over the years. I could understand that U.S. policymakers would accept Abbas’s corruption if he were actually serious about the peace process, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against that proposition.
In his meeting with President Obama, Abbas said “no” to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which even Arafat was willing to do; “no” to abandoning the Palestinian “right of return,” which would destroy Israel as a Jewish state; and “no” to ending the conflict, which . . . wait a second!
No end to the conflict? The Times of Israel reported that Abbas “refused to commit to an ‘end of conflict,’ under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian demands of Israel.” What’s the point of negotiating if it won’t even end the conflict?
This is the same Mahmoud Abbas who circumvented peace talks in 2012 and went directly to the United Nations for a vote on Palestinian “statehood.”
This is the same Mahmoud Abbas who’s always threatening to jettison negotiations if his latest demands aren’t met.
It’s hard to imagine a weaker position for Abbas to be in. He will be eighty-years-old next year. He’s in poor health and he’s a heavy smoker. Even if he were serious about negotiations, he still exerts no control over Gaza. And Palestinian pols are already tussling behind the scenes to see who will replace him.
The only argument I can conceive of in Abbas’s favor is that he’s least bad of the lot. I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s assume it is. What a stinging indictment of Western leaders who’ve spent tens of billions of dollars propping him up with very little to show for it.