On Thursday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addressed the parliament of the European Union. Unsurprisingly, his speech placed the blame for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks solely at the feet of the Jewish state. But in his enthusiasm for assailing Israel, Abbas unwittingly demonstrated that other issues might be at play in the impasse.
Just 24 minutes into his address, the Palestinian president veered into explicit anti-Semitism, telling the assembled European dignitaries that “only a week ago, a number of rabbis in Israel announced, and made a clear announcement, demanding that their government poison the water to kill the Palestinians.” As Reuters reported, this “appeared to be an invocation of a widely debunked media report that recalled a medieval anti-Semitic libel.” Jews were accused throughout the Middle Ages of poisoning Europe’s wells, most notoriously during the Black Plague. Such slanders invariably led to the slaughter of Jews, and have resurfaced through the centuries to the present day.
Remarkably, no European official has as yet rebuked Abbas for his bigoted remarks, despite the disturbing historical legacy of the libel on the continent. That the Palestinian leader would publicly make such remarks, however, is less remarkable.
While the prejudiced pronouncement may seem startling at first glance, it is in fact consistent with Abbas’s long track record of anti-Semitic utterances. Infamously, the Palestinian president’s 1982 doctoral dissertation denies the Holocaust, claiming that the number of Jews murdered has been exaggerated. (He posits one million as a more reasonable estimate.) Moreover, the entire genocide, argues Abbas, was in fact perpetrated by the Nazis in collaboration with the Zionists, whom he dubs the Third Reich’s “basic partner in crime.” Thus, while admitting that the Holocaust did technically transpire, he nonetheless manages to blame the Jews for it. To this day, the PhD is featured among Abbas’s other publications on his official web site, and he has reaffirmed its contents in interviews with Middle Eastern media.
Abbas has not only denied the Jewish genocide, he has falsely accused the Jewish state of perpetrating genocide. In September 2014, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas proclaimed that it was “a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people.” In fact, the Palestinian populations in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel have actually skyrocketed since Israel’s founding in 1948—as Palestinian media and Abbas’s own government Bureau of Statistics regularly celebrate.
Abbas’s latest whopper raises some troubling questions. In April, when former London mayor Ken Livingstone publicly declared that Hitler “supported Zionism,” he was widely pilloried across the British political spectrum, debunked by scholars and the press, and suspended from the Labour party. Yet oddly, even as Abbas continues to make similar and worse anti-Jewish statements in public forums, he has largely been given a free pass by the media and Western leaders. His spurious accusation of Israeli genocide in 2014 at the United Nations, for instance, was not even mentioned in the New York Times report on the speech.
This is not simply a question of journalistic accuracy about one man’s prejudice. It gets to the heart of understanding the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government’s policies undoubtedly deserve their share of the blame for the failure of recent peace negotiations. But surely the fact that their Palestinian counterpart is led by an unreconstructed anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and repeats medieval blood libels also plays a role.
Now, it’s not impossible for the Jewish state to make peace with anti-Semitic governments—though few are aware of it today, Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was a Nazi sympathizer—but it certainly is a lot harder. Tellingly, while Abbas took the time to promote an anti-Semitic libel while in Brussels, he reportedly refused to meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who was also in town, despite European entreaties. For those looking for ways to increase the odds of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian accord, then, pushing back on anti-Semitism from the latter’s leadership would seem a worthwhile endeavor.
Watch Abbas’s offending remark to the EU Parliament with simultaneous translation—somewhat distinct from the one used in this article—below:
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.