The naming of Boris Johnson as Britain's Foreign Minister set off in his home country a storm of name-calling and hand-wringing that approximates the Democrat reaction to Donald Trump. Without wading into British politics, there is one specific incident that the Daily Mail called an impolitic "gaffe" that should be assessed at greater length -- and from a different angle:
Last November local [Palestinian] officials called off a visit to Palestine on safety grounds after the then-London mayor told an audience in Tel Aviv that a trade boycott of Israeli goods was "completely crazy" and supported by "corduroy- jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics in the UK."
Palestinian officials accused him of adopting a "misinformed and disrespectful" pro-Israel stance and said he risked creating protests if he visited the West Bank.
Johnson was right on the merits: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is largely a function of university campuses and has little to do with Israel-UK trade, which is robust and growing. But the incident should be understood as a window into Palestinian strategy, and as such should not be overlooked.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas did not use the opportunity presented by Mr. Johnson's visit to offer his view, to explain why Johnson was wrong, to promote UK-Palestinian trade, or even to argue for BDS. He reflexively threatened a prominent European guest with violence. It surely would have erupted on schedule if Johnson had continued his visit. The Palestinians are no longer interested in discussing their interests/demands/wishes. They have entered a period of ultimatum: one-hundred percent or nothing; my way or violence even with their friends.
It was in the atmosphere of "no criticism/no negotiation" that Abbas went to a European Parliament meeting in Brussels in June, following an inconclusive French-sponsored "peace process" meeting that included neither Israelis nor Palestinians -- a mechanism Abbas assumed would result in French demands on Israel. It did not -- putting Abbas in a foul mood for the European Parliament meeting that was prelude to the release of the Middle East Quartet report on prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Again, Abbas expected to hear only criticism of Israel.
Then, European Parliament President Martin Shulz tried to arrange a meeting between Abbas and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin agreed, Abbas declined -- and it was later revealed that Abbas even changed hotels when he discovered he and Rivlin were sharing a roof. It was in Brussels where Abbas claimed that some Israeli rabbis were calling for Israel to poison Palestinian water -- an echo of Suha Arafat's claim in 1999 that Israelis were poisoning Palestinian air and water. Abbas received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks; Suha received a kiss from then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas receives a standing ovation at the European Parliament in Brussels, after falsely claiming in his speech that Israeli rabbis were calling to poison Palestinian water. Abbas later recanted and admitted that his claim had been false. (Image source: European Parliament)
Under pressure from people who recognized a centuries-old debunked piece of anti-Semitism, Abbas recanted and admitted that his claim had been false. But such was the desire of the European parliamentarians to protect him that his blood libel was erased from all official documents. Which makes his next move even less understandable.
After much wrangling, the Middle East Quartet report on the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the "two state solution" was released on 1 July. Before the release, leaks to the press strongly suggested that
"The focus on Israel will be its most contentious aspect." [Ha'aretz] quoted a senior Israeli government official as stating: "The main question is how harsh criticism of the settlements will be. All the members of the Quartet can rally around this issue without a problem."
Calling it an "eagerly awaited report," Reuters said it would demand that "Israel should stop building settlements, denying Palestinian development and designating land for exclusive Israeli use that Palestinians seek for a future state."
And it did, as reported here, here, here, and even here. The Quartet said that Israeli building policies raise
"legitimate questions about Israel's long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state... Israel should cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion..."
But that wasn't enough for Abbas, because even Quartet members found it impossible to ignore the seven-month-long so-called "stabbing intifada" and the drumbeat of incitement from the Palestinian Authority that encourages and honors the murderers of Israeli civilians. Nor could members ignore definitive evidence of Hamas rebuilding the Gaza tunnel infrastructure to attack Israel. In a relatively mild section, the Quartet criticized Palestinian leaders for "not consistently and clearly" condemning terrorist attacks and, for the first time, said the arms buildup and military activities in Gaza must stop.
Nabil Abu Rudainah, spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, was furious, saying:
"Any report that does not include the full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including occupied Jerusalem, and does not include a recognition of the illegality of settlement will not lead to real and lasting peace and will lead to more tension and more instability in the region."
In other words, more Palestinian-incited violence.
The fit of pique continued as Abbas announced that the PA would boycott the Quartet -- its best friends in Europe plus Russia and the U.S. -- and attempt to block consideration of the report in the UN.
Unable to countenance even mild criticism, and unwilling or unable to engage in serious conversation even with European interlocutors, much less with Israel, Abbas may finally have made the Palestinian cause too difficult for the Europeans, bring the circle back around to Boris Johnson. Not only did he criticize BDS (in which he clearly criticized British academics more than Palestinians), he continued, "I cannot think of anything more foolish" than to boycott "a country that when all is said and done is the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view, a pluralist, open society."
If there was a gaffe, it wasn't by Johnson.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.