Israel’s bid to ‘Arafat-ise’ Mahmoud Abbas will fail

The campaign to “Arafat-ise” Abu Mazen was a flop before it began. But it’s a troubling reminder of how deeply all sides are trapped in their own failed policies, writes Hussein Ibish

The image of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat looks over Israeli security forces near Ramallah. Israel is trying to paint Mahmoud Abbas as another Arafat. Photo: Abbas Momani / AFP
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The dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians – each side hopelessly set in its ways and bereft of new ideas – increasingly seem like a tiresome rerun of an old horror flick. It’s not just the war in Gaza that feels like Groundhog Day. The script in East Jerusalem also seems uncannily familiar.

The cyclical aspect is underscored by the leading role assumed by a new cadre of Palestinian protesters, who are too young to remember the trauma of the second intifada and the damage it did to Palestinian society, institutions, economics and prospects for independence. Even the focus on holy places in Jerusalem is reminiscent of past tragedies.

In recent days, however, an element of sinister farce has been introduced into what is an otherwise dark drama. A raft of right-wing Israeli politicians attempted to “Arafat-ise” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. They wanted to subject Mr Abbas (Abu Mazen) to the same stigmatisation, opprobrium and isolation suffered by his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar), during the second intifada.

Israel was partially successful in turning Arafat from respected statesman and Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker into a diplomatically, politically and even physically isolated pariah. It accomplished this by means of a cooperative Bush administration and because it was able to keep Arafat under virtual house arrest. Many believe that the difficult, even squalid, conditions Arafat faced due to Israel’s treatment of him contributed to his death.

To recast Mr Abbas as the “new Arafat”, these two very different characters have to be portrayed as virtually indistinguishable. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points have been duly internalised all the way down the political hierarchy. A particularly useful opportunity arose on the tenth anniversary of Arafat’s death earlier this month.

Mr Netanyahu has led the attack, but without making an explicit link. He said the violence in Jerusalem was “the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen”. Years ago, the Israeli government laid full responsibility for the second intifada, including actions by Hamas, at Arafat’s door.

Others have been more explicit. Earlier this year, Likud politician and deputy minister Ofir Akunis declared: “Abbas is Arafat in disguise”. Never one to allow himself to be outbid, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman not only endorsed the analogy but insisted that “the only difference [between the two] is that Abu Mazen is more dangerous because he knows how to mask his true face more effectively”. But this remake isn’t entirely faithful to the original production because this time the effort is failing.

Among other things, not all the cast are reading their assigned parts, especially Israel’s national security establishment. Yoram Cohen, the hawkish head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service told the Knesset last week that “Abu Mazen isn’t interested in terror and isn’t pushing for terror, not even under the table”.

Mr Cohen did express concerns that some of Mr Abbas’ comments had, probably unwittingly, contributed to an atmosphere of religious tension in Jerusalem. But he effectively squashed claims such as those by economy minister Naftali Bennett that “Abu Mazen is the driver of death cars in Jerusalem, and the terrorists are his emissaries”.

Though there's been political confrontation at the United Nations, the Israeli security establishment recognises that Mr Abbas is continuing security coordination with Israel and the West Bank and cracking down on Hamas cadres in the areas under his control. Moreover, the violence is concentrated in Jerusalem, which is under Israel's control. Parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) have remained largely peaceful. This is despite several dramatic attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers deep into the West Bank in recent days, as well as provocations such as the announcement of major new Israeli settlement expansions.

Mr Abbas was largely silent about the violence in Jerusalem, but strongly denounced the recent murderous attack on a Jerusalem synagogue. This makes it even more difficult to argue that his rhetoric is the primary cause of the present unrest. Moreover, a few weeks ago, Israel announced that it had discovered a Hamas plot to overthrow Mr Abbas and the PA precisely by means of an outbreak of destabilising violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. They really cannot have it both ways.

The campaign to “Arafat-ise” Abu Mazen was a flop before it began. But it’s a troubling reminder of how deeply all sides, including Israeli political leaders, are trapped in their own failed policies and self-deluding rhetoric. Mr Abbas, for his part, doesn’t seem to have any new ideas either.

With ineffectual or weak leadership at the top, and extremists or hot-heads shaping the plot unfolding on the ground, Israel and the Palestinians once again find themselves drifting towards yet another confrontation that neither side can win and few want.

No one wants to watch this ghastly movie yet again. But, no one, it seems, is able to change the channel either.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on ­Palestine

On Twitter: @ibishblog