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Mahmoud Abbas and the Art of Getting Away With Murder

The Palestinian president’s recent apology shows that a little bit of pressure from progressives is all that it takes for him to change course. What a pity the press, the UN, and others have been so silent for so long.

Liel Leibovitz
May 08, 2018
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

After Mahmoud Abbas shared his unorthodox account of the Holocaust last week—arguing, among other gems, that it was the “social behavior” of the Jews that brought about their great calamity—condemnations were fast and furious. “Let Abbas’s vile words be his last as Palestinian leader,” thundered The New York Times, sounding more like Michael Corleone giving Frankie Five Angels his next hit job than the editorial board of the Paper of Record. J Street, the progressive Jewish lobby, issued a strong condemnation that addressed Abbas’s remarks as both “incendiary” and “offensive.” Even the United Nations Security Council, that pro-Israel bastion, flirted with a denouncement, an effort that was finally aborted when Kuwait objected on the grounds that protesting Holocaust revisionism was, you know, “one-sided.”

The sound and the fury were not in vain: Sensing the ground shake under his feet, Abbas apologized. “If people were offended by my statement,” he said, “especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them. I would like to assure everyone that it was not my intention to do so, and to reiterate my full respect for the Jewish faith, as well as other monotheistic faiths.”

Hallelujah! Now that we’ve settled that minor inconvenience, let us unwind with a thought experiment: If Abbas is obviously and easily pressured by the disapproval of those institutions he sees as his natural allies—the press, progressive Jews, and that super gang of friends in the Security Council—what do you suppose might’ve happened if said institutions might’ve been bothered to express a touch of discontent a bit earlier?

Let’s have fun here: Imagine, for example, that the same liberal-minded cats had raised a righteous racket in September of 2015, when Abbas waxed poetic, saying that the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—both in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital—are exclusively the property of the Palestinians, warned Jews not to desecrate these holy sites “with their filthy feet,” and promised his listeners that “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every shahid [martyr] will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.” Imagine a Times editorial huffing that religious intolerance coupled with clear and direct incitement to violence is reprehensible. Imagine the United Nations calling a meeting to consider a rebuke. Instead, Abbas’s delegates were allowed to fly their flag on Second Avenue a few days later, and the Times editorial board remained silent.

Similar anecdotes abound. There was little outrage when Abbas continued to swear by his pay-for-slay program, which richly rewards the murderers of Jews and makes massacre a far more remunerative career path than, say, civil engineering. (Just last month, a Times reporter alleged that the program, which drove Congress to pass a bipartisan piece of legislation barring payments to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority so long as it continues to support terrorists, was no more than a far-right conspiracy theory.) There was no anger when Abbas, speaking in Istanbul in December of last year, said that the Jews had no real connection to history, adding that “they [Jews] would like to fake this history, they are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Quran they fabricate truth and they try to do that, and they believe in that — but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.” There was hardly a whimper when Abbas, addressing the EU Parliament in the summer of 2016, said that senior rabbis had plotted to poison the Palestinian drinking water, a blood libel favored by the vilest anti-Semites from time immemorial. No European official condemned that statement, and no mainstream American press outlet called for Abbas’s resignation.

Those of us who’ve been reporting on the Palestinian president’s inexcusable bigotry for a while now have abandoned all hope that our deep-seated concerns will be shared by anyone in any position of prominence in the press, the UN, or other bastions of influence favored by progressives. Which is why the current consternation in the Times and elsewhere feels a little bit like a sad joke. Watching Abbas apologize so quickly makes one wonder what might’ve happened had the self-proclaimed champions of peace and human rights bothered to speak up against the petty tyrant from Ramallah much sooner. Abbas’s vile words last week were hardly his first or his vilest, and the time for him to step down as Palestinian leader was long ago. An unbiased press, an international community committed to real reconciliation, a Jewish left less furiously hateful of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and more mistrustful of a long-time, unreconstructed Holocaust denier and champion of violence and terrorism might’ve done a lot of good for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Let’s hope it’s not too late.


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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.