Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work
Angry responses are being heard from within the Palestinian Authority (PA) regarding the video Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released Sept. 9 in which he claims that the Palestinian leadership is demanding a Palestinian state without Jews and that that is equivalent to ethnic cleansing.
A Palestinian source close to President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor that Palestinian officials at the Muqata are usually not surprised by the prime minister's attacks on the PA in general and Abbas in specific. This time, however, they said, Netanyahu's words constitute an escalation in the Israeli prime minister's incitement of hatred against them.
“Netanyahu painted a distorted picture of an imaginary reality in which normal relations exist between Jews and Arabs,” senior Fatah member Qadura Fares told Al-Monitor. “According to him, there is no occupation, no settler violence against Palestinians, no confiscation or takeover of lands, no arrests of Palestinians at the roadblocks, no shooting and killing, and even no uprooting of olive trees.”
Ayman Odeh, a Knesset member and the chairman of the predominantly Arab Joint List, also asserted to Al-Monitor that Netanyahu is constructing an “imaginary reality.” In the video, Netanyahu compares the Arab citizens of the State of Israel to the settlers in Judea and Samaria and says that no one has ever seriously claimed that the almost 2 million Arabs living in Israel constitute an obstacle to peace. “On the contrary. Israel's diversity shows its openness and readiness for peace,” Netanyahu says.
Odeh spoke out against these words, saying, “Netanyahu is trying to rewrite history when he compares a minority living in a certain place for generations and generations — a minority that the State of Israel rose up against — to settlers who were moved against international law to occupied territory while trampling on the human rights of the West Bank and Gaza residents.”
Senior PA officials rubbed their hands in glee following the immediate, sharply critical responses directed at Netanyahu. US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau criticized the very use of the term “ethnic cleansing,” stating, “We believe that using that type of terminology is inappropriate and unhelpful.”
By contrast, Abbas waited for two full days, until Sept. 11, before embarking on his counterattack, saying, “The government of Israel is [the one] carrying out ethnic cleansing and deliberately killing — acts that have exposed it to international criticism all over the world.” Why did it take him more than 48 hours to respond?
It was disclosed to Al-Monitor that PA officials took the time to analyze the content of Netanyahu's video clip in an attempt to understand the timing. In other words, what caused Netanyahu to attack Palestinian leaders and those of other countries, including the United States, at this point in time, when there is no serious international initiative on the agenda?
Senior officials in Ramallah believe that Netanyahu's words were directed at Washington, given that he mentioned the two largest minority groups in the United States: “Would you accept ethnic cleansing in your own country? A territory without Jews, without Hispanics, without blacks?” the prime minister asks.
According to the above-mentioned source, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the Palestinians think that Netanyahu's words were not only directed at Washington. They also think that the prime minister is trying with all his might to strangle the initiative by Russian President Vladimir Putin to host a summit between Abbas and Netanyahu in Moscow in the near future. The Palestinian president has already agreed to meet the Israeli prime minister in Moscow, and according to the Palestinians, Netanyahu has also agreed to the meeting in principle, but does not intend to follow through with it.
The Russian Interfax news agency issued an announcement Sept. 8 that the two sides had agreed in principle to a meeting. Yet at the very same time, Netanyahu's office issued a statement to the effect that the prime minister was still weighing the proposal. Thus, say the Palestinians, Netanyahu is back to his old tricks: He says yes to a summit while simultaneously doing everything to put obstacles in its path.
According to the Palestinians, Netanyahu answered in the affirmative only to rid himself of Russian pressure and then set to work against the initiative. “Netanyahu let loose by shooting in all directions, then buried every possible diplomatic initiative before it even got off the ground,” said Fares. “[In the clip] he shot at the Americans, the Europeans and the [Palestinians], leaving no chances for a meeting. When you accuse someone of ethnic cleansing, how can you meet with him? How will public opinion on your turf agree to such a meeting?”
Thus, Abbas went on the counteroffensive only after analyzing Netanyahu's words. He focused mainly on the international isolation in which Israel finds itself, as he sees it, asserting that this diplomatic isolation was the reason why Netanyahu is trying to torpedo the summit — that is, to shield himself from additional diplomatic damage in Moscow.
The Palestinians believe that they are coming out on top in the current, well-covered public wrestling match with Netanyahu. They feel that Netanyahu climbed up too high a tree and used flawed terminology, thus earning them lots of brownie points. They think this will help them recruit additional international support at the United Nations for establishing a Palestinian state.