The Two Faces of Mahmoud Abbas

Observers of Palestinian affairs would be forgiven for wondering if the Palestinian Authority (PA) has twin brothers for president – both of whom go by the name of Mahmoud Abbas. One travels abroad, speaks English reasonably well and presents a tolerant face to international audiences that’s entirely free of bitterness or any hint of antisemitic paranoia. The other one addresses his people in Arabic and panders to their worst prejudices and conspiratorial fears.

Tolerant, international Mahmoud Abbas addressed the United Nations in mid-February 2020 and declared, “We are not against the Jews. We are Muslims. A Muslim who says ‘I’m against a Jew or against the Torah’ is a heretic”. Clearly, it was The Other Abbas who – while addressing the Palestinian National Council in May 2018 – said that the Holocaust was the fault of the Jews, that it was due to their social behaviour and money-lending.

Tolerant Abbas spoke to the Greek parliament a few years ago, telling the lawmakers that he honours Jews and that Judaism is an “honourable religion”. Meanwhile, The Other Abbas took no action against the Jew-hating Islamic preacher, Imad Hamato, when he declared on Palestinian Authority TV that Jews are behind all evil in the world. Ooops, sorry. He did take action in the end; he rewarded him with a promotion.

One Mahmoud Abbas tells the UN Security Council that the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel. However, in the days before that, other Fatah leaders were making it clear that their aim is to wipe Israel off the map in order to establish a Palestinian state. To the knowledge of this writer, Abbas has not repudiated their comments, never mind disciplining them in any way. Nor has he repudiated this horrifically antisemitic cartoon posted around the same time on the official Fatah Twitter page.

In an interview with a Lebanese radio station in 2013, he focused on alleged links between Zionists and Nazis during World War II. There was no mention of this in an interview with the Israeli media in 2003 when he referred to the Holocaust as “a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation”. Nor was it mentioned when – on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day in 2014 – his office released a statement to the international media describing the murder of 6 million Jews as the most heinous crime in modern human history. Once again, there were different messages for different audiences.

Which Mahmoud Abbas is the real one?

Which one is the true Abbas? It is difficult to know but long before he became president of the PA, he did a doctoral dissertation in 1982 on the Holocaust at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. In it, he claimed that the figure of six million Jews murdered by the Nazis was hugely exaggerated by a factor of six. He declared that this inflating of the numbers was for political gain and tried to explain away even the much smaller murder toll by alleging that “[t]he Zionist movement led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule, in order to arouse the [Nazi] government’s hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them, and to expand the mass extermination”. Clearly, his comments above blaming Jewish “social behaviour and money-lending” for the mass extermination of European Jews were not conjured out of the ether on that day in May 2018. They’d been stewing in his psyche for decades.

Look, we all know what politicians are like. It would be difficult to find an example of one who hasn’t been found contradicting an earlier statement that she or he had made at some point previously. Indeed, none of us are perfect. Which one of us can claim to have always been completely and utterly consistent in everything we’ve said, in every argument we’ve put forward?

However, with Mahmoud Abbas, there is a very noticeable pattern. The Abbas that is nice, tolerant and free of bitterness is always the one addressing an international audience. The Abbas that puts forwards Jew-hatred tropes and who questions the Holocaust is the one who addresses fellow Palestinians and Arabs. There’s a clear and obvious intention to present very different facades depending on the audience.

As the joke goes, President Mahmoud Abbas is now in the 15th year of his first five year term. He’s not accountable to Palestinians and keeps a tight rein on Palestinian media. With the exception of some websites such as MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch, he is very rarely challenged on this duplicity by the international media. So, as long as he gets away with it, Mahmoud Abbas will continue to present two very different faces to the world.

by Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh

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