Is Abbas really a man of peace?

Glance through the mainstream media profiles of new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and you come away with a rosy picture.

The CNN and BBC Web sites, for example, variously describe him as a moderate Palestinian leader, a lawyer, an intellectual and a pragmatist.

He is cited as a key PLO architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords and as someone who has long favoured peaceful negotiations with Israel over terrorism in order to achieve an independent Palestinian state.

He is said to have the respect of the Bush administration in Washington, moderate Israelis and ordinary Palestinians.

Adding to his stature, this weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the Mideast for talks with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Indeed, a lot is riding on Abbas if the latest three-step “road map” to peace proposed by the U.S., UN, European Union and Russia is to succeed. This road map envisions an independent Palestinian state by 2005, committed to living peacefully beside Israel. But everyone agrees achieving it will be long, difficult and with no guarantees of success.

Long allied with PLO Leader Yasser Arafat - the past and, many would say, present terrorist - Abbas is nonetheless widely viewed as a modern Arab leader who recognizes the intifada has been a disaster for the Palestinians.

A less flattering picture

Dig a little deeper though, and the picture that emerges of Abbas, now 68, is not quite so flattering.

Or, as Michael Freund, a former deputy director of communications and policy planning in the office of Israel’s prime minister wrote last month, in The Jerusalem Post:

“Let’s stop fooling ourselves. Abu Mazen is no moderate. Anyone who denies the Holocaust, equates Zionism with Nazism and advocates the use of violence against Jews, is certainly not deserving of such a label. Instead, let’s call him what he really is - just another petty, anti-Semitic thug.”

The charge of Holocaust denial stems from a thesis Abbas wrote as a doctoral candidate at Moscow’s Oriental College in 1982 and published a year later. In his paper, titled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement,” Abbas clearly minimized the Holocaust, if not outright denied it.

He suggested the possibility that fewer than one million Jews had died, as opposed to six million, and that however many were murdered, it was the result of collusion between the Nazis and “the leadership of the Zionist movement … (who) gave permission to every racist in the world, led by Hitler and the Nazis, to treat Jews as they wish(ed), so long as it guaranteed immigration to Palestine.”

Rafael Medoff, a visiting scholar of Jewish studies at the State University of New York, has noted that Abbas denied gas chambers were used to kill Jews - a classic technique used by Holocaust deniers - and inaccurately quoted legitimate Holocaust scholars in order to build his case.

Asked years later by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv about his thesis, Abbas responded: “When I wrote ‘The Other Side’ … we were at war with Israel. Today, I would not have made such remarks … Today, there is peace and what I write from now on must help advance the peace process.”

Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated reported in August last year that its correspondent, Don Yaeger, was told by Abu Daoud - the self-confessed mastermind of the deadly Black September terrorist attack on 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics - that the operation was financed by Abbas in his role as a senior member of Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Endorsed by Arafat?

Daoud first wrote this in his 1999 memoir, Palestine: From Jerusalem to Munich, although he told SI in response to written questions that Abbas “didn’t know what the money was being spent for,” even though the operation had been endorsed by Arafat. (According to SI, Arafat was not known to have ever responded to this allegation by Daoud.)

Given Abbas’ new prominence as Palestinian PM, an Israeli civil rights group, Shurat Hadin, recently called for an investigation into his alleged role in funding the Munich attack, arguing that as a high-ranking PLO official it would be absurd to think he would not have known where the money was going.

For his part, Abbas himself has always denied being involved in terrorism. In his first speech to the Palestinian parliament last month after being selected as PM, he denounced terrorism (“We are convinced that such methods do not lend support to a just cause like ours, but rather destroy it”), promised to disarm violent militias (“The unauthorized possession of weapons … is a major concern that will be relentlessly addressed”) and, rare for a Palestinian leader, expressed sympathy for the Jewish people (“We do not ignore the suffering of the Jews throughout history”).

Critics, however, argue many of Abbas’ past statements have been far more ambiguous, that he has at various times endorsed not only armed struggle, but terrorism, particularly against Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories.

Ironically, while many Israeli Jews are suspicious of Abbas, so are many Palestinians. Writing in The Electronic Intifada in March, in an article which first appeared in The Daily Star, Ali Abunimah described Abbas as “widely perceived among Palestinians themselves as one of the most notoriously corrupt individuals in the Palestinian Authority,” adding he is “deeply mistrusted among Palestinians for his authorship, along with senior Israelis, of various ‘peace plans’ that relinquish fundamental Palestinian rights and maintain the occupation intact, albeit under another name.”

Critics on both sides argue the Bush administration and the western media have wildly overestimated Abbas’ credibility with Palestinians and that Arafat, even with his current diminished status, remains far more influential, as does Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group which wants to eradicate Israel and replace it with a hardline Islamic state.

Could rise to the occasion

In all likelihood, Abbas is not as bad as his detractors claim nor as good as his supporters insist. And realistically, finding any major Palestinian leader who has not at one time or another been accused of orchestrating or encouraging terrorism, would be an impossible task.

A prominent Canadian supporter of Israel I spoke with about Abbas said the realpolitik of the situation is that whatever his past sins, Abbas is preferable to Arafat and there is a chance he will rise to the occasion - if he isn’t killed first.

He pointed to the example of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat - eventually assassinated by Islamic extremists - who started out as an admirer of Hitler and launched a war against Israel in 1973, but eventually came to believe in the peace process and signed a peace treaty with then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Begin started out as the leader of the Irgun, condemned by many as a Jewish terrorist group. In 1946, the Irgun planted and detonated explosives in the King David Hotel - site of the British military headquarters at the time - killing 91 people. Yet in 1978, both Sadat and Begin were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to secure peace between their countries.

In 1994, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin - later assassinated by a Jewish extremist and once an iron-fisted general who had pledged to break the back of the intifada - was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Arafat, for drafting the now-failed Oslo Accords. Arafat, of course, is no longer trusted by the Israelis.

As my Canadian observer put it: “The true test of leadership in the Mideast has always been to prove you can move from advocating violence to demonstrating statesmanship.

“That’s what Abbas has to show now. There are people on both sides of the conflict who want him to fail, because they don’t want the peace process to succeed. To them, no one will ever be acceptable. That’s the challenge Abbas faces.”