The Palestinian Guy Fawkes

Is Mahmoud Abbas an unrepentant terrorist or misunderstood scapegoat?


Mohamad 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 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.

Abbas is the Palestinian Guy Fawkes, viewed by the Israeli right as the double-talking heir to Yasser Arafat and by the Israeli left as a Palestinian leader genuinely interested in peace, but fated to go down in history as the face of failure irrespective of what his true views are. There certainly seems to be an element of truth to both of these views of Abbas. It is difficult to laud as a peacemaker a man who wrote his doctoral thesis on the "secret relationship" between Zionism and the Nazis, who never formally responded to Ehud Olmert's peace offer, and who has downplayed the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. On the other hand, Abbas has -- unlike Hamas -- recognized Israel inside the 1967 borders, repeatedly engaged in negotiations (albeit fruitless ones), and just this weekend denounced Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in no uncertain terms as being completely unjustified.

It seems that Abbas is not quite sure which direction he wants to go, and is constantly being influenced by larger forces beyond his control. He needs to appear moderate in order to secure any concessions from Israel and to keep the flow of donor money coming from the United States and Europe; one of his constant refrains is that the Palestinian Authority is different from Hamas precisely because it officially foreswears violence and negotiates with Israel as conditions of the Oslo Accords. At the same time, he also needs to maintain credibility among Palestinians and cannot be seen as a mere stooge of the United States and Israel -- not to mention that he is fighting a rearguard action against Hamas, which is far more radical and forces him into positions and statements about resisting Israel. No matter what he does, Abbas is destined in some way to lose.

I do not mean to deny Abbas agency, or to suggest that he is powerless to control his own actions or statements. Leadership means taking a stand, and in some ways Abbas has been more willing to stand up for peace than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat -- and in others ways, he has been a graver disappointment. It is also undeniable that while Israeli leaders have often made his lot much harder, he has undermined himself with self-defeating positions such as refusing to negotiate absent a set of preconditions that have only weakened his hand.

There are structural political forces that have hemmed him in, but he has been a weak leader and not taken advantage of opportunities that have presented themselves. Nevertheless, on this Guy Fawkes Day, as the Israeli and Arab press have spent the weekend either lauding or pillorying Abbas, I can't help but think that, like Fawkes, Abbas will go down in history with a stench of defeat and that we will never really know what he wanted or why he behaved like he did.