On the last day of April 2018, Mahmoud Abbas delivered a viciously offensive address to the PLO leadership. The Palestinian president, ever the revisionist historian, claimed that typical Jewish “social behavior” like money-lending brought on the Holocaust and that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Turkic Khazars from the North Caucasus, not the Jews of ancient Israel. Abbas’s most recent anti-Semitic tirade further drives home the reality that he will not be the Palestinian leader to reach a groundbreaking peace with Israel. But it also serves as a reminder that Israelis and Palestinians must ultimately pursue a mutual separation into two states, even if that goal remains distant and if peace is currently a coffin that is more nails than wood.
Mahmoud Abbas has a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric going back to his infamous 1982 doctoral thesis, penned at a Soviet university, in which the future PLO chairman asserted that Israel was born of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis and that only 800,000 Jews had perished in the Holocaust. Sadly, no one familiar with Abbas’s shoddy record of Holocaust denial should be surprised by the text of his latest speech. Thus, it’s not the substance of his comments which makes it so shocking, but Abbas’s irreverent, almost disjointed tone and the increasing frequency with which he is making such speeches. In January, Abbas cursed U.S. President Donald Trump and claimed Israel’s creation was the result of a global, centuries-long conspiracy. In March, he called US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a terrorist, a settler, and a son of a dog. With his speech in April, Abbas now has three manic rants for the first four months of 2018.
Abbas’s increasingly inflammatory public rhetoric is the mark of a leader who has given up. The Palestinian president has no democratic mandate and no peace process (or the semblance of one) to capture the public’s attention. “Losing” Jerusalem, with the American recognition of Israel’s capital and imminent embassy relocation, certainly has not helped his reputation among his own people. Accordingly, he is turning toward his subjects’ basest instincts. The Palestinian president may not have been elected, but he wouldn’t make such outrageous and anti-Semitic remarks if they didn’t have an audience. Indeed, the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey that 97 percent of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza viewed Jews unfavorably. Beyond the issues underlying this anti-Jewish animus, many of which predate 1967 and 1948, it is doubtful that after the failed peace initiatives of the Obama years and three wars in Gaza broad Palestinians attitudes toward Jews have improved over the last eight years.
So if the Palestinian president uses anti-Semitism as a crutch to compensate for flagging support, what of a two-state outcome? As Abbas’s rant from yesterday makes clear, a two-state solution will not necessarily mean an end to hostile attitudes, although such a lesson could already be gleaned from Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, two countries which still experience rampant (sometimes state sponsored) anti-Semitism and host popular anti-normalization movements aimed at curbing ties with Israel. Still, if two states is not a utopian formula, Abbas reminds us that one state is a nightmare.
Just as much as the Palestinian leader’s speech is a clear indication that he has given up on peace, it is also highlights the imperative for partition. When a Serbian leader denies the Bosnian Genocide, it is not treated as an impetus for a Yugoslav reunion but as a stark reminder as to why a multinational state imploded in southeastern Europe in the 1990s. This isn’t to say that all Palestinians are irreconcilable anti-Semites or that outbursts like Abbas’s (or the less severe but no less offensive anti-Arab racism that too often finds a home in Israeli society and government) should simply be tolerated. But the Israeli occupation of the West Bank can never be a “civilizing” mission aimed at “correcting” Palestinian anti-Semitism just as the formalization of a single state will not make a prejudiced Israeli accept Palestinians as co-equal citizens. The two peoples have endured too much conflict for such a superficially simple fix.