Elli Fischer
Writer. Translator. Historian. Rabbi. With ADHD.

Parsing Abbas’s Talmudic Statement: He Didn’t Say What They Say He Said

On the eve of the next round of negotiations, PA President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement about the parameters of a final resolution to the conflict. His statement has found its way into headlines saying “Abbas Pledges: There Will Be No Israelis in Palestine,” “‘Not a Single Israel’ in Future Palestinian State,” and my favorite, “Abbas: Palestinian State will be Judenrein.” The headline of only one Israeli paper accurately paraphrased the statement: “Abbas Rules Out Any Israeli Presence in Palestinian State.”

Without taking a position for or against the current round of talks, the chances of their producing a resolution, and the desirability of such a resolution, I believe their is value in trying to understand what the man actually said. According to all outlets, Abbas said (I do not know if he said this in English or Arabic):

In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands. An international, multinational presence like in Sinai, Lebanon and Syria – we are with that.

Diplomatic language is notoriously ambiguous and downright talmudic. While this statement was doubtlessly meant as “tough talk” before negotiations begin, if we parse it we will see that it does not warrant the knee-jerk media reactions and leaves a fair amount of leeway.

  • “In a final resolution” – does that mean that he is willing to compromise on an interim Israeli presence before a final resolution is implemented?
  • “We would not see” – does this allow for unseen presence? Cameras, control of airspace and water reserves, undercover police and military elements?
  • “Presence” apparently does not mean the physical presence of Israelis, but the permanent physical presence of Israelis. This is the implication of the second sentence, when he talks of an international, multinational presence in the Sinai, etc. In other words, he is saying that there will be no pockets of Israeli civilian jurisdiction or military control in the future Palestinian state. Arguably (to say the least), Israelis would be able to visit and even live in Palestine, subject to Palestinian law and police protection.
  • “Israeli” is not synonymous with “Jewish” in Abbas’s vocabulary. This implies that a Jewish “presence” may be acceptable. Just as Muslim religious authorities (waqfs) administrate Muslim sites under Israeli sovereignty, Jewish (but not Israeli) bodies would administrate or share administration of significant Jewish sites (Joseph’s Tomb, Shiloh, ancient synagogues and cemeteries, etc.) in the future Palestinian state. Moreover, his statement leaves room for Jews to have collective representation and rights within the Palestinian state, in addition to individual rights. Jews would be able to regulate internal affairs like marriage and divorce, as under Ottoman rule, but as Jewish citizens of Palestine, not as Israelis (even if they retain Israeli citizenship).
  • “An international, multinational presence like in Sinai, Lebanon and Syria – we are with that.” Here he is speaking of the border between the future Palestinian state and Jordan, and perhaps with Israel in certain problematic sites. He is stating that no aspect of Palestinian sovereignty will be compromised by Israeli military presence. He will not agree to Israeli control over Palestinian borders (Israel can, of course control its own borders with the future Palestinian state) or the freedom of movement of Palestinian citizens. It is clear that the mandate of an international force in, say, the Jordan Valley would be to protect Israel’s eastern flank, and thus it seems clear that he appreciates Israeli security concerns.

The analogue of Abbas’s statement is not, as some are suggesting, a statement from Netanyahu that the future State of Israel must be Arab-free, but that the future State of Israel will be free of Palestinian civilian or military presence. There will continue to be Arab citizens of Israel, and no doubt many of them will identify as Palestinians. Yet they will not have collective rights as Palestinians and will not live under the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state.
In other words, his vision of Jews in the future Palestinian state is analogous to the status of Arabs in the State of Israel, and his vision for the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state is analogous to the sovereignty of the State of Israel.

The newly re-launched peace talks will doubtlessly feature prominently in conversations and news cycles for the next little while. There are enough reasonable arguments in favor and against them that we can conduct intelligent conversations without jumping to conclusions and without carefully reading what the principal players are actually saying.

If that seems difficult, perhaps it is time to brush up on those Talmud skills. Especially the Palestinian Talmud.

One of Rabbi Elli’s numerous dormant, unfinished, and/or underfunded projects is a curriculum for using talmudic passages about property disputes to engender a more nuanced perspective on the land dispute at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

About the Author
Elli Fischer is a translator with rabbinical ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate who is working on a PhD in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. He is the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Peninei Halakha" series in English and co-creator of HaMapah, a project for the quantitative analysis of the history of halakhah. His writings have appeared in numerous print and online media.