Israel and its supporters are being held hostage by the notion that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is all that we have on the Palestinian side and that any successor would be far worse.
The right’s response to this is either that there isn’t a hair’s breadth of difference between Abbas and Fatah on the one hand and Hamas on the other, or that Israel is better off having Hamas in power because then Palestinian intentions would be clear to all.
These arguments, in my view, do not hold up. Abbas, as problematic as he is, is not Hamas. He doesn’t openly support terrorism; Hamas does. He calls for a peaceful solution of the conflict; Hamas doesn’t. Most important, as confirmed by Israel’s intelligence community, he cooperates with Israel in combating terrorists and extremists.
And the notion that Israel would be better with Hamas in power is belied by what has transpired in Gaza. While the international community largely sees Hamas for what it is, that doesn’t save Israel from condemnation because of what is perceived as Israel’s negative policy and impact on the Palestinians living in Gaza.
And hence the logic of not going too far in undermining Abbas because of the legitimate fear of what would come next.
Abbas surely is not Hamas, but his behavior, in many ways, has become more and more outrageous and may result in part from his belief that Israel has no other choice but him.
When the recent round of violence and murder of Israeli Jews began, Abbas seemed to rationalize it when he referred to the need to keep the “dirty feet” of the Jews away from the Temple Mount.
Last December, when 22 murders of Israelis had already taken place in two months, Abbas called it a “peaceful popular uprising,” while condemning Israeli bullets (which Israelis had used to defend themselves against murderers).
Just recently, Abbas launched a renewed version of his website with a video of him meeting with families of terrorists, including the family of Baha Aliyanfrom East Jerusalem, who committed a combined stabbing and shooting attack on a bus in East Talpiot, murdering three Israelis: Haviv Haim, 78, Alon Govberg, 51, and Richard Lakin, 76.
Meanwhile, Abbas’s acolytes and supporters in Fatah and the P.A. echoed these themes. On February 3, Fatah called the three murderers of Israeli policewoman Hadar Cohen “role models” and praised them for their “self-sacrifice, ” according to Palestinian Media Watch.
And the same watchdog group reported that Jibril Rajoub, the Deputy Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, justified the murders of Israelis as long as they are done in a way that ensures “that the world and international community will remain by our side.”
That these comments by Abbas and other P.A. leaders incite Palestinians to more violence should be self-evident.
What we didn’t expect is that Arab-Israeli leaders would join in. Three members of the Balad movement, part of the Joint List party in the Knesset, also met with the families of the terrorists. The Knesset Ethics Committee subsequently issued a temporary suspension for the three MKs, barring them from all Knesset activity except for voting.
Where does all this leave us? Despite these damaging steps, it remains true that Abbas is better than the alternatives. But we cannot be silent about the damage that his actions are causing, in terms of the violence that continues unabated and the growing Israeli cynicism about Palestinian intentions.
Not only are the comments reflective of a violent anti-Israel culture spreading throughout Palestinian society, they also resonate with impressionable young Palestinians. Anti-Israel sentiment, and to some extent even anti-Semitism, has long been a problem within the Palestinian education system. Inflammatory statements by Abbas and others will serve only to further poison the minds of young Palestinians.
There are no easy solutions to this dilemma. At the very least, however, the United States must make clear to Abbas that this behavior is unacceptable. If U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro can articulate American concerns about the impact of settlements on hopes for peace, as he did January 18, surely we need to say clearly and directly that the behavior and words of P.A. leaders during this crisis have been troubling and dangerous.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was appropriately criticized for his January 26 comments to the Security Council implying that Palestinian violence was justified because of Israeli behavior.
Now is the time for Abbas to be told that his actions are also unacceptable. The goal in doing so is not to undermine his leadership, but to stress that no matter how much he is needed, he doesn’t have carte blanche to set the region on fire.
Ken Jacobson is the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.