The Palestinian Guy Fawkes

Is Mahmoud Abbas an unrepentant terrorist or misunderstood scapegoat?

RTR37OOR-615.jpgMohamad Torokman/Reuters

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates the plot by a group of English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I along with it. The plot was disrupted on November 5, 1605, when Fawkes was discovered with the cache of gunpowder underneath Westminster. Ever since, Fawkes has been associated with the Gunpowder Treason and fated to be burned in effigy by English schoolchildren every November 5.

The irony of this is that while Fawkes is the only plotter whose name has lived on in infamy, Fawkes was neither the ringleader nor the mastermind of the group. In fact, as Antonia Fraser convincingly argues in one of my favorite books, Faith and Treason, Fawkes was the fall guy for a group of conspirators who used him. While Fawkes was certainly not an innocent bystander by any means, he was manipulated by people and forces that he was unable to withstand. Fawkes became the eternal public face of a murderous plot in which he was involved but for which Robert Catesby should have lent his name. To some, Fawkes is an unrepentant terrorist; to others, he is a misunderstood scapegoat who was in way over his head.

I couldn't help but think of the sordid history of Guy Fawkes this week during the back-and-forth over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's comments over whether Palestinians are going to insist on the right of return to their former homes in any peace deal with Israel. The right of return is perhaps the thorniest issue in the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians. The designation of Palestinians as refugees implies that they will one day return to where they came from, while Israel quite understandably does not see why Palestinians should be able to return to Israel once a distinct Palestinian state is formed.

In the span of a day, Abbas managed to give the Israeli left a cudgel with which to hammer the Israeli right, only to then place the same cudgel in the hands of the right in order to bludgeon the left.

In an interview with Israeli Channel 2 this weekend, Abbas declared that he had no intention of returning to Tzfat (Safed), the northern Israeli town where he was born, as a resident, which many interpreted to mean that Abbas was ceding the right of return. This naturally caused an uproar among Palestinians. Hamas rushed to brand Abbas as a traitor, leading him to backtrack, claiming that he was only speaking for himself and that nobody has the ability to give up the Palestinian people's right of return.

So in the span of a day, Abbas managed to give the Israeli left a cudgel with which to hammer the Israeli right, only to then place the same cudgel in the hands of the right in order to bludgeon the left. Undoubtedly this was not some intentional strategy, but the blunderings of a man who is being pushed and pulled from all sides and has no idea what he really wants, what he can tangibly accomplish, or how to accomplish it.

Presented by

Michael Koplow

Michael J. Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute and a Georgetown University Ph.D. candidate in Government specializing in the Middle Eastern politics and democratization. He has written for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and writes regularly at Ottomans and Zionists.

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