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Abbas’ Dangerous War

Unlike Arafat, the Palestinian leader can’t have his peace and eat it, too

Liel Leibovitz
November 18, 2014
Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a visit to Nablus on Jan. 6, 2005. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)
Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a visit to Nablus on Jan. 6, 2005. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

The terrorist attack this morning in which four rabbis were murdered at prayer inside a synagogue in West Jerusalem is the latest installment in a violent spree that has left 10 Israelis dead over the past month alone, leading some to argue that what we’re witnessing is the bloody birth of a third Intifada.

It’s possible to argue otherwise. It’s possible to remember that a similar bubbling of violence erupted last fall, when two Israeli soldiers were killed in short succession and many pundits believed that a serious surge of Palestinian attacks was inevitable. Back then, it took no more than a few weeks for the hostilities to die down. This time, it’s different. The current spate of murders, it seems, may be the opening salvo in Mahmoud Abbas’ war—the Palestine leader’s attempt to re-define his legacy after a decade of public corruption and dissatisfaction, his failure to make peace with Israel, and the loss of Gaza to Hamas.

When it comes to Abbas’ culpability, current opinions in Israel seem mixed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside several other senior security officials, has clearly laid the blame on the Palestinian president, while the head of the Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen, has argued that Abbas is only culpable inasmuch as his followers choose to interpret his speeches as an invitation to violence, but he bears no direct responsibility for the murders. It’s a discussion worth having—healthy democracies foster precisely this sort of dissent among its top officials—but even as we observe events unfold in real time we ought to look to history for clues as to their meaning.

Unlike traditional wars, which are fought by standing armies with clearly delineated lines of command, surges of terror come into being in more amorphous ways. The first Intifada, for example, caught the PLO’s senior leadership off guard but nonetheless soon became a mighty instrument of violence. To call this recent spate of murders “a leaderless revolt,” as some chronically inept publications have, is to miss the nature of the dangerous and duplicitous game Palestinian leaders have been playing for at least two decades now.

Credit the late Yasser Arafat for this two-handed tactic: Fan the flames of popular rage on the one hand, and on the other position yourself as the sole guarantor of calm and quiet, the lesser of all available evils, and the last, best hope for peace. This is what Abbas is doing now: vowing that he doesn’t want another Intifada while presiding over a torrent of incitement designed to keep passions at just the boiling point. One recent rant, broadcast 19 times in three days recently on the state-controlled PA TV station, serves as a good introduction to the Rais’ general mindset: In it, Abbas calls for religious conflict in the Al-Aqsa mosque and urges his followers to prevent the Jews, “in any way whatsoever,” from entering the sacred space. This is not just a hothead’s attempt at playing hardball: By saying that he wished to prevent the Jews from “contaminating” the Temple Mount, Abbas, the author of a Holocaust-denying doctoral dissertation, is purposefully using the language of ancient religious hatreds to spark new ones.

Here, too, Abbas is nothing more than a mediocre student of Arafat’s playbook: The second Intifada was launched when Arafat, using Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount as an excuse, unleashed a torrent of religious frenzy centered on the Temple Mount, sounding much like Abbas sounds now.

It worked well enough the first time around, but that was before ISIS and the war in Syria and the rest of the crest of instability and intolerance and killing that has washed over almost every Arab nation. Now it’s no longer enough to speak of peace while fanning violence. The bad old tricks no longer apply.

But Abbas may have his way still: As he continues to shout about the need to defend the holy site—his Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash, recently called on all governments to help defend Jerusalem and protect its Christian-Muslim identity from the Jewish usurpers—more and more Israelis are asking themselves why they should continue to put up with the Waqf, the Islamic trust that has controlled Al Aqsa since the 10th century and that Israel restored to power after its triumph in the 1967 war. The claim that Jews alone should be denied access to the sacred spot is deeply upsetting, and when it is presented with the shrill notes of religious warfare it is likely that even moderate Israelis will soon demand that prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount be changed. That, most likely, would lead to an all-out explosion of violence, a third Intifada grander and bloodier than any before.

Which, as all available clues suggest, is precisely what Abbas wants; his Fatah movement could hardly have been more clear than it was this morning, posting praise for the perpetrators of the synagogue massacre on its Facebook page.

Still, Abbas may be bitterly disappointed. The genocidal beheaders and their cohorts have lowered the tolerance for religious killing, and once Abbas unleashes hell, he may find himself, unlike Arafat, the first victim of his own war.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.