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Abbas' appearance at Peres funeral - what it means

Capture d'écran d'une vidéo fournie par le porte-parole du Premier ministre israélien, de la poignée de mains entra Mahmoud Abbas et Benjamin Netanyahu lors des obsèques de Shimon Peres le 30 septembre 2016 à Jérusalem
HO (Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman/AFP)
The Palestinian leader showed courage and mental largess in attending Shimon Peres's funeral

First of all, let's not get carried away – this is nothing like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Although "peace" remains a dirty word in our region, the Arab world has been openly flirting with Israel for the last 40 years, especially behind closed doors. Abbas can fill albums with photographs from hundreds of meetings with Israeli officials, at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, in private residences, at the Mukataa in Ramallah and elsewhere. He is no stranger here. And yet…

His decision to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres represents a personal tribute. He didn't have to do it. He could've shielded himself behind the decisions of Arab leaders who have peaceful relations with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, to absent themselves from the ceremony. See also the decision of Israel's Arab Knesset members. Yet, in spite of everything he chose to attend.

Surrounded by heavy security, he stood at the cemetery where Israel's greatest statesmen are interred, one of the Jewish State's great symbols. Surrounded by Israeli flags and dignitaries, he was photographed at this quintessentially Israeli event. He knew he wouldn't be able to dodge handshakes or small talk with Israel's top officials. He realized this wouldn't endear him to ordinary Palestinians.

Of course, there were political considerations as well. Those included appealing to the Israeli public, in the estimation of whom he has gone down during the last year after he was seen embracing families of terrorists and sending them messages of support, inciting against Israel at every turn, and failing to publicly condemn the wave of stabbing, vehicular and shooting attacks against Israelis.

It was also a message to the international community, signaling that he's not a renegade and can come through when the situation calls for it. Even all the way to Mount Herzl, all the more noteworthy after he declined to address the Knesset. He knew many world leaders would attend Peres's funeral and he needs their support at the upcoming peace conference in France.

Yet, all things considered, this decision took courage and mental largess. He stepped right into the flame. It appeared that he was successful in restoring his reputation with a part of Israeli public, the ones who started doubting him.

Palestinian outrage at his decision is refusing to subside. Even his own Fatah party was unforgiving: while some stood by his side and defended him, the voices of those who openly challenged him, even calling him to resign, will keep resonating. It was put to him that even Arafat, in an era of peace accords, went no further than watching Rabin's funeral on TV. This is typical of a difference in perspectives: the Fatah is worried about what the Palestinian street is going to say; Abbas is looking outward, at Israel and the international community.

Cynics might say he paid no great personal price as his popularity was at record low anyway and he had nothing to lose. Let them talk. Abbas went against the grain, not for the first time. In the past he stood alone against armed resistance during the second intifada. In an unprecedented tirade, he lashed out against the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June of 2014. And on several occasions he voiced the heresy of calling the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority "sacred." Under his stewardship, Palestinian security forces continued acting against terror during last year's escalation. And now, by attending the funeral, he proved he is not guided by considerations of popularity.

Palestinian eyebrows were raised when Abbas wasn't mentioned in Netanyahu's eulogy to Peres. There was an expectation his presence would be acknowledged, accorded the recognition it deserves. In Arabic it’s called karame, or respect. It's one of the most important values in interpersonal relations in the Middle East. The one resource found in abundance, and yet one it's become increasingly rare to encounter.

We shouldn't assign Abbas's gesture a greater political meaning than it could've had. It's doubtful whether it broke the ice with Netanyahu. The two spoke on several occasions in recent years, including two months ago, when Netanyahu called to offer condolences on the death of Abbas's brother. Peace won't come from Mount Herzl.

Gal Berger is Israel's public radio 'Kol Israel's' Palestinian affairs correspondent


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