Abbas’s Shoah recognition papers over a murky record

There is a wide range of attitudes to the Holocaust among Palestinians, ranging from outright denial and support of Nazism to attempts by moderates to learn about the genocide of European Jewry.

The more mainstream view has tended to be that the Palestinians who lost the Independence War in 1948 were in some way being sacrificed by the world powers for their collective guilt over the Holocaust. Palestinian leaders and ideologues have sought to create a moral equivalence between the Shoah and their Naqba, the disaster of losing a war that uprooted many Palestinians.

In the past, President Mahmoud Abbas has done more than his fair share in promoting this agenda. His doctoral thesis, written in 1983 at Moscow’s Lumumba University, claimed that the Zionist movement had actually co-operated with the Nazis in order to push Jews to emigrate from Europe to Palestine.

The study also questioned whether six million had indeed been murdered, suggesting a much lower number.

Not only has he never explicitly disowned his thesis, but last year he reportedly told Al-Mayadeen, a Beirut TV station affiliated with Iran and Hizbollah, that he “challenges anyone who can deny that the Zionist movement had ties with the Nazis before the Second World War,” adding that he had “70 more books that I still haven’t published” about the supposed partnership.

By contrast, in other interviews and appearances in the years since Oslo, he has tried to distance himself from those conclusions, acknowledging the enormity of the Holocaust and its unique status.

To that extent, his statement on Sunday that “what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” was not, as most of the media reported, a new position.

Neither did it appear to be have been designed as a PR exercise.

The statement was solicited by Rabbi Marc Schneier, a media-savvy and flamboyant New York rabbi active in Jewish-Muslim dialogue who met him in Ramallah two weeks ago.

It was timed to coincide with Yom Hashoah, but of course it worked well for Mr Abbas, coming at the lowest point for the diplomatic process and portraying him as a man willing to make his peace with the Jewish people.

Ultimately, however, Mr Abbas’s shifting positions over the Holocaust were never an issue in the negotiations.

So, while this week’s statement may have gained him some positive headlines, he has much more immediate problems to deal with than his conflicting interpretations of history.

Last updated: 3:45pm, May 1 2014