Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, speaks to the media in Berlin, Aug. 16, 2022.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, speaks to the media in Berlin, Aug. 16, 2022. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Dan Schnur writes about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and “the three-dimensional chess game that is Middle Eastern geopolitics.”

There’s an old joke about two guys on a camping trip who see a bear heading in their direction. The first guy starts to panic, but the second guy calmly begins to lace up his sneakers.

First guy: “Are you crazy? You can’t outrun that bear.”

Second guy: “No, but I can outrun you.”

The point is that everything is relative.

Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur

In a week during which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas once again attempted to minimize the horrors of the Holocaust, we were reminded that even the so-called “moderates” in the Palestinian leadership are not that moderate. It’s all relative.

His shameless insults reminded us that the path to peace is far more complicated than either the Abraham Accord advocates or J-Streeters would have us believe.

Over years of fitful peace negotiations in the region, we have accepted that Abbas is more pragmatic than Hamas’ leaders. And two weeks ago, during Abbas’ news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, we re-learned an old lesson that in the Middle East, the most reasonable leaders aren’t very reasonable at all.

Abbas, who took over for the less moderate Yasser Arafat in 2005 and has canceled presidential elections for the past 13 years in order to remain in office, has been attempting to diminish the import and impact of the Holocaust for his entire adult life.

He wrote his doctoral thesis on the premise of a partnership between Zionists and Nazis and argued that the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust was vastly overblown. Over the years, he has repeatedly made the case that “only” a few hundred thousand Jews were killed and that the six million figure was concocted for public relations purposes. Just four years ago, Abbas claimed that Jews in Europe were massacred for centuries because of their “social role related to usury and banks.”

Such is the state of moderation in the Middle East.

Scholz did not exactly cover himself with glory, remaining silent through the remainder of the news conference after Abbas’ slurs and then shaking his hand afterward before eventually criticizing Abbas several hours later. He has been condemned in Germany and abroad for not speaking out more quickly. The fact that German law actually forbids Holocaust denial heightens Scholz’s embarrassment even further.

Yet the German leader’s reaction underscores the tenuous nature of Israel’s relationships with many European countries and reinforces the importance of strengthening ties with its Arab neighbors. It also reminds us of the scope of the challenge that those of us who want to achieve peace in the Middle East still face. Israel’s improved relationships in the region certainly provide greater security for its people. But while praise for these efforts is entirely justified, Abbas’ hate-filled remarks are a testament to the obstacles to peace that still lie ahead.

In the three-dimensional chess game that is Middle Eastern geopolitics, other events occurred recently that could have a greater impact on Israel’s future than Abbas’ insults. While the most “reasonable” of Palestinian leaders was blaspheming the memories of six million dead Jews, Iranian negotiators were withdrawing a key demand from the negotiations over that country’s nuclear capabilities. Iran’s decision to drop the requirement that their Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the State Department’s terrorist organization blacklist makes a final deal slightly more likely and accentuates the mutual animosity toward Iran that binds Israel to a growing number of Arab states.

Henry Kissinger famously said that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. So the juxtaposition of the negotiations with Iran and Abbas’ ugly revisionism provides a cautionary note that the stronger relationships between Israel and some of its neighbors does not reflect an eradication of age-old antisemitism in the region but rather the current and perhaps temporary confluence of goals against a common threat. 

If Abbas is a moderate, permanent friendships in this dangerous neighborhood are still a long way off.  

Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

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