Mahmoud Abbas and Munich
|That the Bush administration has been
recently involved in an emperor-with-no-clothes routine on the Palestinian-Israeli track
is plain. It refuses to notice that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is stark
naked, and everybody plays along. Now and then some onlookers protest, but the illusion
It certainly continued when Abbas met with President George W. Bush in Aqaba three weeks ago. According to an Israeli press report there was chemistry between Bush and Abbas, in contrast to relations between the president and the Israelis: After that meeting, Bush turned to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and said: We have a problem with Sharon I can see, but I like that young man (Palestinian Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan) and I think (Abbas) is incapable of lying We can work with them.
As the author Edward Sheehan recently suggested in the New York Review of Books, the notion that Bush was really working with anybody other than Arafat is fanciful. After a meeting with Abbas and Arafat, Sheehan observed: I left convinced that Arafat is still much in command of Palestinian policy and that American and Israeli attempts to thrust him aside will not easily succeed. I also heard persistent reports that Arafat is undermining his prime minister. Sheehan considers Abbas a transitional figure, a man of Arafats generation who will be left behind once the Palestinian leader gives up the ghost. The assessment seems fair, and yet one of the things helping Abbas is his moderation. He is best remembered for signing the Oslo Accords and for warning that the intifada was leading the Palestinians nowhere, famously asking: Were Arab tanks surrounding Tel Aviv when we reached agreement in Oslo? Abbas name, Sheehan wrote, has never been associated with violence.
Sheehan may be wrong. Abbas was involved in serious Palestinian violence, at least if we are to believe former PLO official Abu Daoud, whose autobiography was published in France in 1999. An English translation of the book was to be issued in the United States soon after the French version came out, but the publishing house, Arcade Books, was intimidated into delaying its release. A look at the Amazon.com website shows the book was slated for publication in December 2002, however it is not yet on the market.
Abu Daoud rather proudly described himself as the mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage takeover. He wrote that he was with Salah Khalaf, better known as Abu Iyad, and another PLO official, Faqri al-Omari, at the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome when Omari concocted the idea. Soon after, Abu Daoud began planning the operation and recalled that the only officials he dealt with on the matter were Abu Iyad and Abbas, who was to secure the funding. Arafat himself gave the green light for Munich.
Can Abu Daoud be taken seriously? Its difficult to say since both Abu Iyad and Omari were assassinated by an Abu Nidal operative in Tunisia in 1991. However, Abu Daouds book was designed not to blacken his former comrades, but to set the record straight. Abu Daoud sought to prove that he did Munich, not Ali Hassan Salameh, the person long held responsible for the attack and whom the Israelis killed in a retaliation attack in 1979.
Why was Salameh blamed? Abu Daoud explained this was the result of confusion over names, exacerbated by Salamehs penchant for stealing the limelight. Salameh was always described as the head of the Black September group that carried out Munich. In reality, Abu Daoud wrote, Salamehs outfit (which never denied the charge) was only a counterfeit version of the real Black September set up by Abu Iyad, Abu Daoud and Mahmoud Abbas, as a tributary of Fatah.
In February 1973 the Jordanian security forces arrested Abu Daoud. For reasons we need not get into here, they made it seem he had admitted to a version of Munich that, paradoxically, absolved him of responsibility, while blaming men supposedly close to Salameh. This had the dual effect of discrediting Abu Daoud in Palestinian eyes and inducing the Israelis to assassinate PLO officials in Beirut who had not actually participated in the hostage takeover.
In mentioning Abbas, Abu Daoud was not out to damage his reputation. On the contrary, he saw Abbas as a reliable witness confirming that he, Abu Daoud, was behind the Olympics attack. This, he probably believed, would help enhance his credibility among Palestinians so that it would seem unlikely he betrayed his comrades through a false confession in a Jordanian jail. For what its worth Abu Daoud also reservedly supported Oslo while it lasted, displaying little overt animosity toward Abbas views.
If Abu Daoud is telling the truth, does that make Abbas less credible as an interlocutor? No, since Palestinian-Israeli peace was always going to be built on short memories. However, it does underline what a preposterous game of smoke and mirrors the issue of Palestinian representation has become, with some officials deemed palatable and others, with much the same past, tainted. Then again illusions usually endure because they are based on self-delusion.
Michael Young writes a regular column for THE DAILY STAR. His weblog is www.beirutcalling.blogspot.com