Much has been said about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: That his indecisiveness disqualifies him from being a serious partner for peace with Israel. That his demands from Israel are unrealistic. That he twists and turns at significant junctures in the peace talks. That he negotiates only to maintain the status quo and not to reach a solution. That he doesn’t miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. That he hasn’t evolved into an accountable political leader. That under the elegant suit lurks a man who seeks to gradually destroy Israel. That he is too weak to ensure enduring security. That under his leadership the Palestinian Authority continues anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement. And that for years he has done nothing to gain the trust of the Israeli public.
But on the eve of Israel’s national day of Holocaust commemoration — when Israelis recall the murder of 6 million Jews — Abbas released a historical statement that I doubt any other Arab or Muslim leader from Malaysia to Morocco would have the courage to put forward.
According to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen: “What happened to the Jews during the Holocaust is the most heinous crime known to humanity in the modern age.” In his official statement, the Palestinian president expressed his sympathy to the victims’ families and other innocents killed by the Nazis. He described the Holocaust as a manifestation of racism on the basis of ethnicity, which he said the Palestinians oppose and fight against. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian statesman and the P.A.’s chief peace negotiator, added “The Holocaust is the evilest chapter in the history of mankind. … It was an act of evil, killing more than 6 million people because they were Jewish and then go home and drink champagne and listen to Beethoven. Palestinians must condemn it.”
Amid a bleeding, more extreme Middle East, where many Arab and Muslim states promote anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, the Palestinian leadership’s statement cannot be taken for granted. When peace talks with Israel reached an ebb last week, Abu Mazen could have kept the “Holocaust ticket” deep in his pocket and pulled it out during more cordial times. But he chose not to. His message to the Palestinians, the international community and especially the Israeli public is courageous: As long as he is the Palestinian president, there will be little tolerance for falsification of fact and ideological extremism.
In a region where skepticism and suspicion are endemic, doubt is often an automatic reaction. Accordingly, in the face of Israeli accusations that the Palestinians are responsible for the stalemate in peace talks as well as American and Israeli disapproval from last week’s rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, Abu Mazen had no choice but to demonstrate that he still seeks peace and has not become an extremist. In other words, maybe pressure — rather than honesty or political courage — was behind the president’s statement.
But no one can overlook the fact that the Palestinian president chose to address the Israeli public. And this is significant because eventually the people will determine the quality of any Israeli -Palestinian arrangement.
Abu Mazen’s words play on the deepest chords of the Jewish psyche. Moreover, his recognition of the Holocaust as the most abominable crime known to humanity challenges a popular Palestinian-Arab narrative that the Palestinians are the victims of a Nazi-like Zionist war machine. So regardless of what one believes of the reasons behind the statement, Abu Mazen’s words are revolutionary.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed unprepared. “Hamas denies the Holocaust while attempting to create another Holocaust,” responded Netanyahu in his weekly Cabinet meeting.
Considering Abu Mazen’s negative image in the Israeli government, the dire status of the peace talks and the upheavals in the region, the Palestinian president’s unequivocal condemnation of the Holocaust is historical, courageous and groundbreaking.
Of course, Abu Mazen’s statement does not indicate whether he’s ready or capable to reach a final agreement with Israel. But as the current chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement are slim, small steps to build trust seem essential, if only to look toward the next round of talks. In a conflict where trust is so scarce, the Palestinian president wisely addressed the Israeli public who — very much like the Palestinian public — places great value on its version of history.
Moran Stern is a lecturer at Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization in the School of Foreign Service. Follow him at @MoranStern.