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Abbas Goes Off Deep End, And Even the NYT Can't Overlook It
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the members of the European Parliament during his official visit in Brussels, Belgium on June 23, 2016. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Abbas Goes Off Deep End, And Even the NYT Can't Overlook It

Walter Russell Mead & Harry Zieve Cohen

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a blatantly anti-Semitic speech in front of the European Parliament on Thursday in which he made the unsubstantiated accusation that Jews were trying to poison Palestinians’ water. The New York Times reports:

“Just a week ago, a week, a group of rabbis in Israel announced, in a clear announcement, demanding their government, to poison, to poison, the water of the Palestinians,” he said. “Is this not incitement? Is this not clear incitement, to the mass murder of the Palestinian people?”

Mr. Abbas was repeating a claim initially made on the website of an office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Anadolu, the Turkish state-run news agency, repeated the claim on Sunday. It was echoed in The Gulf News, a daily newspaper in Dubai. The Anadolu article said that a Rabbi Shlomo Mlma, whom it called the “chairman of the Council of Rabbis in the West Bank settlements,” had issued an “advisory opinion in which he allowed Jewish settlers to poison water in Palestinian villages and cities in the West Bank.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that news outlets had not been able to find a Rabbi Mlma or any listing for the council mentioned in the article.

Abbas retracted the statement on Friday, admitting it had been “baseless,” but the fact that he even made it in the first place is nonetheless telling.

As Yair Rosenberg points out, it was hardly a new low for the Palestinian leader; Abbas has made plenty of unsavory claims about Jews that remain un-retracted:

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.

Alas, readers of the New York Times are unlikely to know any of this, and they are unlikely to be aware of how common such statements are in the Arab world. From Cairo to Tehran, blood libels and other unsubstantiated accusations against Jews are routine. But the Times, like much of Western media, rarely covers that story.

The fact is, spewing anti-Semitic nonsense (and yes, retracting it when he goes too far) is part of the balancing act Abbas has to perform. On the one hand, he has to keep making peace-and-love noises so the West will send the money without which he can’t survive. On the other hand, he has to throw some chum to the angry people with guns who could also bring him down. One purely speculative possibility is that Abbas made these remarks when and where he did because he’s under pressure back home after the disclosure that he agreed to give up the “right of return” in negotiations with Israel’s opposition leader last year.

Westerners and Israelis are always asking if Abbas is “sincere”. In one sense he is definitely sincere: He wants to stay alive and in power (which is probably pretty much the same thing, given his situation) and so he says whatever he sincerely believes is necessary at any given moment. Like Arafat, and to a certain degree like the King of Jordan, he survives by floating in turbulent waters… more jellyfish than anything else, because that is what you have to be in that part of the world.

Of course, it’s not exactly consolation that Abbas is only saying these things because they make him popular. But anti-Semitism has long been baked into Palestinian ideology, and even identity. In some ways, this has to do with the specific circumstances under which Palestinians live. But it’s also a phenomenon we’ve seen with unfulfilled nationalisms all around the world: they have a nasty tendency to sweep everything before them.

Nevertheless, the most sobering part of the story isn’t the reaction anti-Semitism receives back in the West Bank: At the end of his 43-minute speech, Abbas received a standing ovation from the audience of European representatives.

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