The Quran itself, Islam’s holy book, recognizes the Jews’ historic ties to the land of Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told a group of American Jewish leaders at a June 10 meeting in Washington.
“He made clear that the Jews have a historic connection to the land and said the Quran is full of references to that,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who attended the event. “I think it was important because people don’t hear these kinds of statements from an Arab leader every day.”
The recognition of authentic Jewish ties to the land of Israel, though not couched in terms of political sovereignty, appears to be a first for a Palestinian leader. Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, famously rejected Jewish claims to have established a temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon, part of his broader rejection of Jewish rights in Jerusalem. And in August 2000, Abbas himself rejected even the existence of a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount during the Roman era — a fact universally accepted by historians.
Abbas’s statement, although it does fall short of the Israeli demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, is significant, said Scott Lasensky, senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace.
“There’s two extremes: denying the legitimate connection of Jews to the land of Israel — as some accuse Arafat of doing — and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state,” Lasensky said. “Abbas has not gone as far as recognition, but these comments suggest he’s moving in that direction, which is positive and should be encouraged.”
Reports of Abbas’s remarks were met with seeming disbelief in the Arab media and led an Al Jazeera reporter later that day to ask him if the reports were correct. Abbas replied, “Jews are there, and when you read the Holy Koran you have it there. That’s what I said.”
Abbas offered his remarks during a dinner gathering with American Jewish leaders several hours after he concluded a meeting with President Obama. The dinner event was described by one participant as a “tough but cordial” exchange. Another participant stressed that despite differences, “The tone was not polemic.” Most of the questions from Jewish representatives were critical of the actions of Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, in particular Abbas’s refusal to engage in direct negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to participants, Abbas replied that the format of proximity talks, in which America’s special envoy, George Mitchell, is currently shuttling between the two parties, was suggested by the United States. He said that he would agree to sit directly with Netanyahu after Israel fulfilled requirements detailed in the road map peace plan sponsored by the United States and others, which Israel and the Palestinians agreed to in 2003.
Abbas stressed to his audience that the upcoming year would be critical for peace efforts, which aim to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. He warned that if by the end of the year there is no progress, Israel might find itself with no partner for a two-state solution on the Palestinian side. The Palestinian president made clear that he does not intend to seek reelection in the next Palestinian presidential election, whose date has yet to be set.
To emphasize the increasing popularity of a one-state solution among Palestinians, said participants, Abbas pulled out photos of signs posted on billboards throughout the West Bank that called for a one-state solution instead of a resolving the conflict by dividing the land. “You always say the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Abbas said, according to one of the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting, “but now it is your turn to prove you are not going to miss this opportunity.”
The Palestinian president also said that reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, is needed to effect a peace settlement. Abbas placed the blame for not reaching such a reconciliation on Hamas. He expressed hope that the renewed focus on Gaza that has come with recent efforts to break Israel’s blockade of the territory will lead Turkey and Egypt to pressure Hamas to accept a deal for Palestinian national unity.
One participant criticized what he said was continuing incitement against Israel in Palestinian publications. Abbas suggested setting up a joint Israeli-Palestinian-American committee to examine the issue.
The meeting was organized by Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman who now heads the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, and by Abraham himself. The 50 participants represented a variety of Jewish groups and opinions, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to Americans for Peace Now, from Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, to Sandy Berger, a national security adviser during the Clinton administration.
But those who follow the Jewish political scene also took note of the people who did not attend. Abraham Foxman, the outspoken national director of the Anti-Defamation League, chose not to come, as did Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both groups were represented by their lay leaders.
“The invitation to the event presented us with a dilemma,” Foxman said. “On the one hand, if he [Abbas] is not willing to talk to Israel, why should we talk to him? But on the other hand, it is an opportunity for us to tell him what we think.” The ADL resolved this dilemma by sending only the group’s chairman, Robert Sugarman. According to Foxman, Sugarman “went into the meeting skeptical and came out skeptical.”
For the Jewish doves in the room, the questions raised by Jewish leaders who spoke at the event, were a source of concern. “I heard a Jewish community that is living in the 1980s and does not understand the reality on the ground,” said J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who attended the meeting. “To sit and talk about shows on the Palestinian TV is ludicrous and misses the point.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.