It was often remarked that the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader, Yasser Arafat, would sound moderate when speaking in English and utterly intransigent when speaking in Arabic. Much of the same could be said about his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
In an exclusive op-ed for Haaretz—published to coincide with the Israeli newspaper's one-day conference on peace in Tel Aviv that was rudely interrupted by a barrage of rockets from Gaza—Abbas sounded rather statesmanlike. "As the president of the Palestinian people I am totally committed to the vision of a two-state solution, normalization and peace with our neighbor—Israel," Abbas wrote.
Such statements are music to the ears of the White House. In his own Haaretz op-ed, President Barack Obama stated admiringly that in Abbas, "Israel has a counterpart committed to a two-state solution and security cooperation with Israel." Obama could not, however, bring himself to say something positive about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The vision of Abbas as a moderate is, however, sorely compromised when one looks at his other statements. Speaking to other senior members of the Palestinian leadership about the murder of the Palestinian teenager, Mohammad Abu Khudair, Abbas rhetorically asked, "Shall we recall Auschwitz?" Later on, Abbas accused Israel, on the second day of its Operation Protective Edge to counter Palestinian terrorism in Gaza, of carrying out a "genocide" against the Palestinians.
Is Abbas simply seeking to offend Jewish and Israeli sensibilities, or is there a strategy behind these appalling claims? I would argue that it's the latter.
As brutal as the killing of Abu Khudair was, to invoke in the same sentence Auschwitz, a death camp run by the Nazi Reich with efficiency and savagery in equal amounts, is morally obscene. Around 2 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, were exterminated at Auschwitz. Many were children flung into the gas chambers. Few things compare with this horror, and certainly not the murder of one individual by a gang of freelance thugs.
Yet Abbas proudly makes this comparison—and for good measure throws in the genocide accusation as well. Genocide is a crime that involves the systematic attempt to wipe out an entire group. Since the Second World War, we've witnessed genocide in places like Cambodia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. If one looks carefully enough, one can find examples of genocides happening right now—for example, against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. Nothing the Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces remotely approaches the legal definition of what constitutes a genocide.
But to Abbas, that doesn't matter, because he knows there is a sympathetic audience in the West and across the Muslim world that's already predisposed to the belief that Israel's aim is to wipe out the Palestinians, in much the same way that the Nazis wiped out 6 million Jews. In Europe alone, a staggering 40 percent of respondents to a 2011 poll organized by Germany's Ebert Foundation agreed with the statement that Israel is "conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians."
Indeed, the naked theft by Palestinian leaders of the most monstrous slaughter in Jewish history passes virtually unnoticed, never mind being condemned. Twenty-four hours after Abbas made these comments, not a single mainstream outlet—not The New York Times, not the BBC, not CNN—had reported them, likely because they don't regard such analogies as scandalous.
At the same time, Palestinian apologists eagerly lap them up, while ignoring the fact that, as Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri proudly confessed, Gazan civilians are being encouraged to become human shields against Israeli bombs. For their own leaders, it seems, dead Palestinians are good news: their corpses stoke up world anger against Israel, and provide television images to buttress the accusation that Nazi Germany has been reincarnated in the form of the Jewish state.
All of which makes great political sense to Abbas. Many Palestinians understand that Israel is not going to be defeated militarily. They also understand that a third intifada could well peter out in the manner of the first two. Still, as the Palestinian commentator Rami Khouri argued in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, there is another strategy: a coordinated campaign of civil disobedience, advocacy of boycotts and sanctions akin, Khouri says, "to the anti-apartheid strategy against racist South Africa," and the pursuit of a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in U.N. bodies and institutions.
For this to succeed, the Palestinians have to maintain their position in the Western conscience as the world's most downtrodden nation. And what better way to do that than by referencing two of the West's bete noires—the Nazi Reich and the apartheid regime?
Israel is often accused of creating facts on the ground. Actually, the Palestinians are creating facts in our minds, revising and distorting history to fit their political goals. You have to admit that it's smart: at the same time as warning Israelis that "death will reach you from north to south"—a quote not from Hamas, incidentally, but from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade of Abbas's own Fatah movement—they depict themselves as victims of a genocide.
Are we smart enough to respond effectively? How do we do so? That's a subject I intend to return to in the coming weeks.