The passing of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding generation of statesmen, has prompted an avalanche of eulogies from the international community. Remembering him as a “dear friend,” a “great man of the world,” and Israel’s “biggest dreamer,” world leaders and dignitaries from 70 countries gathered in Jerusalem for his funeral on Friday, among them Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was the first time Abbas had stepped foot in Israel since 2010.
The domestic backlash to Abbas’s attendance reveals that Peres is remembered quite differently among many Palestinians, and highlights Abbas’s increasing isolation at home. In Palestine, Peres is reviled for his early support of Israeli settlements, his 1996 military campaign in southern Lebanon that resulted in the Qana massacre, and his failure to deliver on promises of peace made in the Oslo Agreements.
Within hours of the announcement that Abbas would be at the funeral, pressure against his visit to Israel began to build. Members of the Joint Arab List, a political party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, had already declined to join the funeral, and refused even to express condolences. Joint List chair Ayman Odeh explained that despite Peres’s peace efforts in the 1990s, “we have fierce opposition to his security stances of the occupation and building settlements, bringing nuclear weapons to the Middle East, and unfortunately, as president, he chose to support [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his policies.” That Abbas was the only Arab head of state attending was another indication of his isolation. (Representatives from Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and Bahrain, as well as Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shoukry, were also present.)
According to a report from Palestinian daily Ma’an News, unnamed officials attending the ongoing annual meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council complained about the optics of the visit, claiming that it would undermine Fatah’s base of support and hand Islamist groups a public relations victory.
Palestinian social media also mobilized against Abbas, with the hashtag “Condolences for Peres’s death are treason” beginning to trend soon after the announcement of the visit. Rumors swirled that Israeli culture minister Miri Regev had attempted to snub the Palestinian President by denying him a first row seat at the funeral, until Peres’s family intervened. Users reacted with consternation as a screenshot of Abbas on television was claimed to show him shedding tears. “This won’t help his [political] position,” one commentator said:
محمود عباس رئيس فلسطين يبكي في وفاة شمعون بيريز رئيس اسرائيل السابق .. مشهد يصعب استيعابه pic.twitter.com/Feo9tjG6lI
— مسمار (@mesmmarr) September 30, 2016
Footage also showed a smiling Abbas shaking hands with Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, and speaking with Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni.
High-placed Fatah officials defended Abbas’s move, saying that it would send a message to the world that the Palestinian people were serious about peace. They did not mention if Israel had committed to any reciprocal steps. Netanyahu had not acknowledged Abbas’s presence in his remarks at the funeral.
The backlash against the visit expresses the despair many ordinary Palestinians feel with the status quo. More than twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the settlement enterprise continue apace, while Palestinian statehood seems more distant than ever. That frustration is often directed at Abbas, who is sometimes seen as an obstacle to change. His decision to attend Peres’s funeral seems unlikely to alter that perception.
Philip Sweigart is program director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service, and received a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and Middle East Studies from the University of Virginia, where he wrote his thesis on the role of ethno-sectarian identity and class differences in the 2011 Arab uprisings.