Sometimes, words only go so far. This week in Middle East politics, we saw two examples of words both carefully crafted and hastily uttered.
As for the former, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” in modern history. He further expressed “sympathy with the families of the victims and many other people who were killed by the Nazis.”
Timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began the evening of April 27, his remarks stand out because they run counter to the Holocaust denial so rampant in the Muslim world. Otherwise he was merely stating the obvious. What took you so long, Mr. Abbas?
Abbas may have spun his statement in part to reassure Israel in the wake of collapsing peace talks and the recent rapprochement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It didn’t work.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying, “[Abbas] can’t say the Holocaust is terrible while … embracing those who seek destruction of the Jewish people.” He was referring to Hamas, which will purportedly become part of a unified Palestinian government.
Hamas is having none of that “sympathy” stuff; one spokesman from the terrorist group told a reporter that Hamas “will not give any cover for any negotiations with the enemy.”
As for the hasty utterance, Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to back-pedal after he was caught saying at a closed-door meeting that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it does not agree to a two-state solution.
His use of the “A” word triggered a torrent of condemnations from Israeli and American leaders. Kerry later conceded he had used an ill-chosen term, but defended his pro-Israel bona fides, saying, “I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes.”
We will take him at his word. Though some of his statements in recent months have concerned a segment of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, Kerry has overall shown strong support for Israel.
These episodes demonstrate how words may have significance beyond what their speakers intend. When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian relations, that is almost always true.