Uri Avnery on Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas speaks during a press conference on October 8, 2014 in the West Bank City of Ramallah. Clashes broke out as Palestinians protested against Jews visiting the flashpoint holy site on the eve of the week-long holiday for Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, Israeli police said. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
October 10, 2015

                                                 Leader without Glory

I FIRST met Mahmoud Abbas in Tunis at the beginning of 1983.

I knew that he was responsible for the Israel desk in the PLO leadership. Said Hamami and Issam Sartawi, the PLO delegates with whom I had been in permanent contact since 1974, told me that he was in charge. But he was not present at my first meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the siege.

I came to Tunis with General Matti Peled and Yaakov Arnon, in an official delegation of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which we had founded in 1975. Before meeting with Arafat himself, we were asked to meet with Abu Mazen (as Abbas is called) and discuss our ideas, so as to present the leader with an agreed, detailed proposal. That was also the procedure in all the many meetings that followed.

Abu Mazen was very different from Arafat. Arafat was flamboyant, spontaneous, extrovert. Abu Mazen is rather withdrawn, introverted, cautious, meticulous. My first impression was that of a schoolmaster.

When Arafat was murdered (as I believe), there were two obvious candidates to succeed him: Mahmoud Abbas and Farouk Kaddoumi, both members of the PLO founding generation. Kaddoumi was far more extreme, he did not believe that Israel would ever make peace and admired the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad. The PLO leadership chose Abbas.

WHEN ABBAS assumed “power” (in quotation marks) – he found himself in an almost impossible situation.

Arafat had accepted the status of the Palestinian Authority under Israeli occupation as a calculated risk.

First of all, he believed Yitzhak Rabin, as we all did (and as I advised him to). We all believed that Rabin was well on the way to accepting a Palestinian state next to Israel. Within five years, the State of Palestine would become a fact. No one could have foreseen the murder of Rabin, the cowardice of Shimon Peres and the ascent of Binyamin Netanyahu.

Even before that, Rabin had bowed to the pressure of his “security chiefs” and reneged on crucial parts of the Oslo agreement, such as the free passages between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Abu Mazen entered into this situation – Rabin was dead, the Oslo agreement only a shadow of its former self, the occupation and the settlement enterprise in full swing.

It was an almost hopeless task from the start: a dubious autonomy under occupation. According to the Oslo deal, which was meant to last for five years at most, the greater part of the West Bank (“area C”) was under direct and full Israeli control, and the Israeli army was free to operate in the two other areas (“A” and “B”), too. An additional Israeli withdrawal, provided for in Oslo, never materialized.

Palestinian elections held in these circumstances led to a Hamas victory, helped along by the competition among the Fatah candidates. When Israel and the US prevented Hamas from assuming power, Hamas took the Gaza strip over by force. The Israeli leadership was full of glee: the old Roman maxim Divide et Impera served its purposes well.

Since then, all Israeli governments have done everything in their power to keep Abbas in “power” while reducing him to a mere underling. The Palestinian Authority, conceived in the beginning as the embryo of the Palestinian state, was shorn of any real authority. Ariel Sharon used to refer to Abu Mazen as a “plucked chicken”.

TO REALIZE the extreme danger of Abu Mazen’s situation one has only to remember the most recent historical precedent of “autonomy” under occupation: Vichy.

In the summer of 1940, when the Germans overran Northern France and occupied Paris, the French surrendered. France was divided into two parts: the North, with Paris, remained under direct German occupation, the South was granted autonomy. A venerable marshal, Henri Petain, a hero of World War I, was appointed leader of the non-occupied zone, the capital of which was set up in the provincial town of Vichy.

A lone French general resisted the surrender. Charles de Gaulle, with a small band of adherents, fled to London, where he tried by radio to arouse the French people to resist. The effect was negligible.

Against expectations, the British continued the war (“Alright then, alone!”) and the German regime in France became inevitably harsher and harsher. Hostages were executed, Jews deported, Vichy became more and more a byword for collaboration with the enemy. Slowly the “resistance” gained ground. In the end, the Allies invaded France, the Germans occupied the Vichy territory and were vanquished, de Gaulle returned as a victor. Petain was sentenced to death but not executed.

Opinions about Petain were divided, and still are. On the one hand, he saved Paris from destruction and saved the French people from many of the cruelties of the Nazis. After the war, France recovered quickly, while other countries were in ruins.

On the other hand, Petain is regarded by many as a traitor, a former hero who collaborated with the enemy in wartime and turned resistance fighters and Jews over to the Nazis.

OF COURSE, different historical situations cannot be equated. Israelis are harsh occupiers, but they are no Nazis. Abu Mazen certainly is no second Petain. But some comparisons may be in order.

One way to judge a policy is to ask: what are the alternatives?

It is no exaggeration to say that all forms of Palestinian resistance have been tried and found wanting.

In the beginning, some Palestinians dreamt of Indian-style civil disobedience. It failed completely. Palestinians are no Indians, and the occupation army, which has no real antidote to civil disobedience, simply started to shoot, compelling the Palestinians to turn to violence.

Violence failed. The Israeli side enjoys infinite military superiority. With the help of informers and torture, Palestinian underground cells are regularly uncovered, including the last one this week.

Many Palestinians hope for international intervention. This has been prevented by successive US administrations, all of which served the occupation on request of the US Jewish establishment. Sympathizers of the Palestinian cause, such as the international boycott movement (BDS) are far too weak to make much of a difference.

The Arab countries are good at making declarations and proposing plans, but largely unwilling to help the Palestinians in any real way.

What remains? Precious little.

ABU MAZEN believes – or pretends to believe – in “international pressure”. Many Israeli peace activists, despairing of their own people, have reached the same conclusion.

With a lot of patience, Abbas is slowly gathering points at the UN. This week, the Palestinian flag was raised at the UN headquarters among the flags of member nations. This has raised national pride (I remember a similar event in our own past), but does not really change anything.

Abbas may also hope that the growing personal antagonism between President Obama and Prime Minister Netayahu will induce the Americans to withhold their veto in the Security Council the next time a resolution against the occupation comes up. I doubt it. But if so – the Israeli government will just ignore it. The same will happen if Abbas succeeds in getting some Israeli officers indicted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Israelis believe only in “Facts on the Ground”.

I assume that Abu Mazen knows all this. He is playing for time. He is trying to prevent a violent uprising, which he believes will only benefit the occupation, deploying his American-trained “security forces” in cooperation with the occupation army. This is close to the abyss.

He has one consolation: the Hamas authority in the Gaza Strip has obviously come to the same conclusion and is now keeping a kind of armistice (“hudna”) with Israel.

ONE OF the main differences between Jewish Israelis and Arabs is their attitude towards time. Israelis are by nature impatient, Arabs are patient to a fault. Arabs admire the camel, an animal of infinite patience. The Arabs have a very long history, while the Israelis have almost none.

I assume that Abu Mazen believes that at this point in time there is very little Palestinians can do. So he is leading a holding operation: endure the occupation, prevent violent confrontations the Palestinians are bound to lose, wait for the situation to change. Arabs are good at this kind of strategy, called sumud.

However, the occupation is not just staying around. It is active, taking away Arab land, relentlessly building and enlarging Israeli settlements.

In the long run, this is a battle of wills and endurance. As has been said, a battle between an unstoppable force and an unyielding mass.

HOW WILL Abbas be judged by history?

It is much too early to say.

I believe that he is a true patriot, no less than Arafat. But he is in danger of sliding, against his will, into a Petain-like situation.

I definitely do not believe that he is corrupt, or that he represent a small class of “fat cats” who are getting rich under and from the occupation.

History has placed him in a situation that is well-nigh impossible. He is showing great courage in trying to lead his people in these circumstances.

It is not a glorious role. This is not a time for glory.

History may remember him as a man who did his best in disastrous circumstances.

I, for one, wish him well.

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1 Response

  1. Poo Carson says:

    “I definitely do not believe that he is corrupt, or that he represent a small class of “fat cats” who are getting rich under and from the occupation.”

    By this standard, if one could call it that, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi could equally be called men who history may well remember as men who did their best “in disastrous circumstances.” I suppose the key word is “may.” It could be ‘may not’ just as easily. More like ‘definitely will not’.

    Avnery could make a fortune in North America selling whatever it is that he smokes. Maybe it has medicinal qualities too.

    Apparently only Avnery is unaware that Abbas is a self-aggrandizing thief who has made himself a billionaire by siphoning off international monies, intended for Palestinian infrastructure, into out of country bank accounts for him and his sons. At the same time, no doubt using these same monies, he has amassed valuable real estate holdings.

    Due to the miraculous absence of national elections, Mr. Abbas is in the 11th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. Where else could that happen save for a dictatorship? He has lost much of his credibility among Palestinians for his failure to end his dispute with Hamas and to implement major reforms in his ruling Fatah Party. But how can he possibly steal and reform simultaneously? He has lost the public’s confidence. A recent poll showed trust in him falling to 16 percent from 22 percent in March. Nice trend line.

    A promised reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, its Islamist rival and ruler of the Gaza Strip, is also at the graveyard gates. The peace process with Israel that has defined his leadership (?) is all but dead mostly because Abbas is not interested in reaching any deal with Israel. He knows that Israel will never give him 100% of his demands so that is what he in fact demands. Without 100% capitulation by Israel, Abbas refuses to sign any agreement no matter how historic. That plus the fact he would lose much of the revenue from foreign countries, like mine, that he now steals. Instead, he tells his people that Israeli leaders are war criminals and do not want peace.

    The Palestinian Authority seems in perpetual financial crisis, while the economies of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are sinking as Abbas and his sons get richer. Funny how that works.

    Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor, made the Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest kings and despots in 2003. After his death, his net worth was revealed by an audit conducted by American accountants, authorized by the Palestinian Authority, to be 1.3 billion dollars! This was only an estimate!

    The books of the Palestinian Authority are a black hole with billions of dollars from Western and Muslim countries, bribes and foreign aid, going to a network of secret bank accounts and investment portfolios that not only financed terrorism, but also the lifestyles of the men at the top. Arafat’s wife had received a 200,000-dollar-a-month allowance. So much for the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the terrorist world.

    Mahmoud Abbas learned well. He hoards a fortune of some 100 million dollars and the family owns lavish properties worth more than $20 million in Gaza, Jordan, Qatar, Ramallah, Tunisia, and the UAE. His Fatah Party has a secret slush fund in Jordan worth 39 million dollars. An additional 5 million dollars was spent on a Fatah convention in 2009, even though there hasn’t been a single election since 2006. 13 million dollars of that money came from the U.S.
    The Palestinian Authority’s upper echelons live in mansions, drive expensive cars and enjoy the better things in life though the Authority itself is always bankrupt. 1.3 billion dollars has vanished from the Palestine Investment Fund since it was turned over to Abbas’ control.

    Some of Abbas’ fortune comes from a racketeering network that controls fuel and cigarettes. The cigarette monopoly currently belongs to Yasser Abbas, one of his sons. In Gaza, the network was seized by Hamas. Yasser Abbas has bitterly accused Hamas of stealing and reselling his cigarettes. Aah.

    The conspicuous wealth of Abbas’s own sons, Yasser and Tarek, is a source of quiet controversy in Palestinian society. Yasser, the elder son, carries both Palestinian and Canadian passports. We’re so proud. Among Palestinians, the Abbas family dynasty is common knowledge. Discussion of the issue, however, rarely rises above a whisper thanks to a growing fear of retribution by PA security officers. Journalists and citizens have been apprehended for openly challenging President Abbas’s authority.

    A google check will reveal the vast network of companies operated by the 2 boys with invaluable assistance form their well-heeled and we’ll-connected father.

    Avnery also knows that the Jewish people can trace their roots in the area back some 4,000 years. Maybe he should speak to his local Rabbi, if he has one. I think he has been misled by the local Imam.

    In the end Abbas holds on. Why? For the money, why else. He has accomplished nothing save the enrichment of himself and his boys. That is what history will remember. It is what everyone with the exception of Avnery already knows.

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