The strident comments this week of Mahmoud Abbas, the frontrunner in Sunday’s Palestinian presidential election, have left Israelis puzzled and concerned after weeks of more conciliatory talk and directives on his part to end Palestinian incitement against Israel.
Abbas, the man viewed by both Israel and the United States as a moderate who could lead the Palestinian people to statehood, called Israel the “Zionist enemy” during remarks to thousands of supporters in the Gaza Strip Tuesday.
The comment came after Israel retaliated to Palestinian mortar strikes in northern Gaza with tank fire that killed seven young Palestinians in a strawberry field. Whether they were working for Hamas or were innocent bystanders was under dispute, though Israeli army officials blamed terrorists for launching attacks in the midst of civilians.
“Intolerable,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Abbas’ comment.
“Dangerous,” said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Abbas’ remarks to his supporters, which the Jerusalem Post called a “withering attack against Israel,” has left “people confused.”
“This is a person who is viewed somewhat as the Shimon Peres of the Palestinians who is now trying to sound acceptable to the most extreme elements of the Palestinian people,” he said. “One’s instinct is to write this off as electioneering by someone who has a 10-year track record against violence. But we need to learn from the past that words do matter.”
Makovsky said that although Abbas had been saying in this campaign that all outstanding issues with Israel must be resolved peacefully, “in the last few days his campaign has heated up and he has gone way over the top. It is not justifiable. Words do come back to haunt people and they set a tone.”
Sunday’s Palestinian election comes as Israelis are wondering whether they too would soon be going to the ballot box to elect a new government. United Torah Judaism, an Orthodox party many had been expected to join a new coalition government with the Likud and Labor parties, found itself divided over the issue. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested he might try to bring Shas, another Orthodox party, into his government.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said he would not rule out Sharon reaching out to Shinui, a secular party that recently left the government when UTJ was expected to join.
The alternative to solidifying a coalition is new elections, which is viewed as a possible hindrance to Sharon’s plans to disengage from Gaza this summer.
Asher Arian, a University of Haifa political scientist, said he believes UTJ will eventually join the government in order to get money for its projects.Meanwhile, Abbas continued to surprise observers. Makovsky said he never would have expected to hear Abbas call Palestinian gunmen heroes. “He had never glorified violence, and now he is seemingly at variance with his track record,” Makovsky added.
But Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, said that although Israeli leaders are saying Abbas’ words are unacceptable, the rhetoric came during a campaign stop and they will “judge him differently after he’s elected.”
Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace and one of the midwives of the Oslo Accord, agreed.
“Once you are under pressure of a campaign, sometimes your mouth spits out sentences which are there in order to appease the listener rather than to communicate your own ideas,” he said. “I know Abu Mazen; I know him quite well. It’s not only not his style, it’s not him. It’s a bad slip of the tongue, but we should not judge him at all. This is not the Arafat double talk.” Telhami pointed out that Abbas, 69, launched his campaign to head the Palestinian Authority “with a big strike against him.”
“He was not popular and was coming in the shadow of [the late Palestinian President] Yasir Arafat,” he said. “He was being outperformed [in the polls] by [imprisoned intifada leader] Marwan Barghouti, and Hamas was not running a candidate. And so it would be embarrassing if he did not win big. He needs to energize his Fatah movement and to turn out the vote.”
Makovsky said Palestinians have told him that Abbas wants to get more than 60 percent of the vote and that he was seeking a 70 percent turnout. If he succeeds, “he believes that would be a mandate.”
Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, suggested that Abbas has changed his rhetoric to broaden his base of support.
“He has always been seen as a little too dovish and he now has to prove his nationalist credentials,” he explained. Abbas made the remark in addressing supporters in Khan Younis just hours after the deadly incident. The phrase “Zionist enemy,” long used by Hamas and other terrorist groups that don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, had not been used by the Palestinian Authority since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Israel said the tank was firing on a group of nine masked Palestinians who a short time before had been firing mortars into nearby Israeli communities, injuring one Israeli civilian. Palestinians said the masked men had left by the time the tank fired and that its shell struck and killed youngsters ages 11 to 17 who had gone to the field to watch the action. Six of the dead were reportedly from one family and three were brothers.
After delivering his remarks, Abbas canceled a planned trip to the hospital to see those injured by the tank shell. A Palestinian journalist accompanying Abbas was quoted as saying the stop was canceled because of fear Abbas would be attacked by Palestinians upset with his calls for an end to violence against Israelis.
“Abbas presents himself as a gentleman in a suit, rather than as a rabble rouser in a keffiyah and he has been dovish against the intifada,” said Brown. “But when it comes to goals, he is for the right of return [of Palestinians to Israel] and for Israel returning to its 1967 borders. The right of return is a core issue for the Palestinians,” he noted. “The real kicker is the implementation of that right. What surprised me is that he was fairly strong on that, saying that it is an individual right and that each Palestinian has a right to go home. That is significant and it is going to throw a crimp in negotiations, to put it mildly.”
Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, said Abbas’ comments reflect his weakness within the Palestinian political system and his need to curry favor with militant critics.
“Palestinian politics haven’t yet internalized that you cannot go on saying that this is for domestic consumption only — that this is for the Palestinians and not for the Jews,” he said. “This is what happened in the early days of Oslo, when Arafat was trying to muster support and using all kinds of rhetoric.”