The mythical moderate Mahmoud Abbas

After delivering a speech at the UN Assembly in 2006, President George W. Bush met with the newly elected president of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and praised him for being a moderate who is “willing to speak out and act on behalf of people who yearn for peace” and whom he “can’t thank enough for the courage you have shown”. Almost eight years later President Barack Obama , in an interview with Jeffery Goldberg , “made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have “. In those eight years Mahmoud Abbas’s views have not changed a bit and he has remained the same moderate leader as always. Which means, he is not very moderate at all.

By now we are used to the moniker “moderate” that has been attached to Abbas. Literally snatched out of obscurity close to Yasser Arafat’s death (he was Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority from March to October in 2003 ), Abbas was, in the words of Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada ( January 2005) selected especially for the job .

[M]ost Palestinians had not really heard of Mahmoud Abbas until George Bush anointed him the moderate leader. And understand–under Bush’s pressure, Abbas was appointed as Palestinian prime minister a while back. So, you know, there was this juggernaut to have Abbas elected in Arafat’s place.

Abbas’s claim to being a moderate is at best circumstantial. Never a military leader or fighter, his realm of action was limited to organizing finances (and distributing them , as when he funded Abu Daoud so he could commit the 1972 Munich Massacre) and other sundry tasks. He was, if not, a terrorist in a suit, at least a member of the inner circle of Fatah leadership, with part of the collective responsibility for murdering Israeli civilians. He was also known as being “pragmatic”.

Pragmatism is a great virtue when coupled with lofty values, but a terrorist that lays down his gun temporarily, in order to use it later when his chances to succeed are better, is far from being righteous. Abbas’s pragmatism falls, by his own admission into the later category. Saying that “the use of arms has been damaging and should end” is a far cry from condemning terror because it targets civilians and is just plain wrong. As regarding Arab terrorists, for Abbas they are heroes and figures to be emulated, including those who committed crimes targeting Jewish children . So why call Abbas a moderate?

If we remember correctly, we would recall that after Operation Defensive Shield in Spring 2002, that the IDF basically controlled all of Judea and Shomron including Ramallah and the Mukataa (the PA Headquarters) and Arafat was basically imprisoned. After Operation Defensive Shield the option of mass, organized “resistance” by armed factions of PA were greatly reduced. It would be sometime before a measure of safety could be regained by Israeli civilians, but a corner had been turned. At this stage, when Palestinian casualties were mounting and Israeli casualties were decreasing, even Arafat thought that acts of armed resistance were “counter productive”. As noted, refraining from doing what you are no longer able to do is not moderation but rather “pragmatism”.

Pragmatic or not, Arafat was no longer a viable partner for making a final peace agreement in 2003. President Bush saw Arafat as being tainted by his direct involvement in terror and reduced USA direct involvement in the conflict. Still, even without a real partner for talks, the talks continued, but now it was the EU talking to the USA about an agreed solution (the Roadmap for Peace). In order for the process to continue a moderate Palestinian was necessary. The USA and the EU pressured Arafat to appoint Mahmoud Abbas prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and later, after Arafat died, USA and EU pressure paved Abbas’s way to the presidency.

Having chosen a successor, it was important for the USA, the EU and the Israeli left to portray Abbas as a moderate regardless of whether he was or not. The refrain, “there is a partner so the talks should continue” was in a reality a contortion of ” the talks must continue our partner must be moderate”. An obstruent and obstinate Mahmoud Abbas was no agent of peace but he was marketed as a pragmatic moderate. Even today the merchandizing of moderate Mahmoud continues despite numerous disappointments. For Abbas, there will be no recall notice issued, but rather we will have to wait till his expiration date, which, we can hope, will happen at the first humanly appropriate opportunity.

When Abbas is gone, the Israeli Left will sorely miss him. There will be those who will remember him as a kindly, quiet and smiling grandfather figure and mourn his absence. Others, perhaps more sage, will remember other grandfather figures, whom at their demise, the police dug in the backyards of the deceased only to find the skeletons of young children, victims of secret acts of violence, pragmatically hidden to avoid accountability.

We are no closer to Peace today than we were nine years ago when Mahmoud Abbas became president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas still demands the “right of return” and still refuses to recognize Israel as a the Jewish homeland and is not willing to declare the end of the conflict. In the almost prescient words of Abunimah from 2005:

And it seems that the Americans, the EU, and as I have called it, the peace process industry see in Abbas someone who will be willing to compromise on fundamental Palestinian rights. And I think they’re going to be very disappointed because they’re going to find out that simply putting a nice guy in a suit and sitting down with him doesn’t change any of the basic realities of the conflict.

Whether it is the basic realities of the conflict or the consistent and true nature of Abbas, the present round of talks appears to be arriving to a dead end. Surely Obama will then repeat how Israel missed her golden chance to achieve a lasting agreement. I would not worry for him. When Abbas is gone the next Palestinian leader will quickly fill the empty shoes. And he will be, I predict, a moderate.

About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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