Does Mahmoud Abbas' murky past matter?

Does Mahmoud Abbas' murky past matter?

Does Mahmoud Abbas' murky past matter?

Events beyond our borders.
July 24 2003 4:11 PM

Did Mahmoud Abbas Finance the 1972 Munich Olympic Takeover?

And if he did, does it make him a less trustworthy negotiator in 2003?

Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas: Trustworthy?

As Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas prepares for a meeting Friday with President George W. Bush, he knows that the U.S. administration, in its evolving cosmography of Palestinian-Israeli relations, believes him to be a real gentleman. Abbas, known by the nom de guerre Abu Mazen, is said to be everything Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is not: sincere, responsible, and conciliatory.

In fact, many Palestinians see Abu Mazen as too conciliatory. They've accused him of selling the farm to Israel, leading him to tender his resignation a few weeks ago. He later withdrew it after agreeing to a power-sharing deal with Arafat. For the Bush administration, Abu Mazen's ability to stay in office may decide the fate of the Palestinian-Israeli "road map." His credibility is based on a belief that, in the words of one writer, "his name has never been associated with violence." He was one of the first PLO officials to open contacts with Israelis in the mid-1970s, signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, and last year stated that the violence of the intifada was leading Palestinians nowhere.

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This portrait of Abu Mazen may be too convenient, though. A founding member of Fatah, the PLO's main faction, Abu Mazen headed some of the organization's most sensitive departments in the 1960s and '70s; it would have been remarkable if he was not involved in violence. Indeed, if we are to believe the autobiography of former PLO official Muhammad Daoud Oddeh published in France in 1999, Abu Mazen was involved in the hostage takeover at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, which led to the death of 11 Israeli athletes.

Oddeh, known as Abu Daoud, wrote that he was the mastermind of Munich, which was carried out by the so-called Black September organization. He recalled that the plan was concocted in Rome at a meeting he held with senior PLO official Salah Khalaf, better known as Abu Iyad, and another colleague. Soon after, Abu Daoud began planning the operation. The only people he dealt with on the matter were Abu Iyad and Abu Mazen, who, Abu Iyad said, was to secure the funding.

Abu Daoud's account was surprising. For years the man held responsible for Munich was Ali Hassan Salameh, a flamboyant PLO official who was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1979. Salameh was always thought to be Black September's leader. Abu Daoud confirmed that Salameh had headed a group by that name, but he claimed it was a counterfeit version. It was the "real" Black September, set up by Abu Iyad, Abu Daoud, and Abu Mazen as a tributary to Fatah, that was responsible for Munich.

Because Abu Daoud's book is not yet published in English, his revelations have had no impact in the United States. However, the story has been picked up by right-wing pro-Israel groups seeking to discredit Abu Mazen, and, therefore, talks with the Palestinians.

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Can Abu Daoud be believed? It's difficult to say, since Abu Iyad was assassinated in 1991. But Abu Daoud didn't want to blacken his former collaborators; he wanted to earn credit for Munich, which he still defends but says was not supposed to provoke bloodshed. He made his assertions to dispel the belief held by some Palestinians that he gave testimony in 1973 to the Jordanian intelligence services that both absolved him of responsibility for Munich and blamed men supposedly close to Salameh—men later killed by Israelis acting on the information.

What does this have to do with the Palestinian prime minister? Abu Daoud thought Abu Mazen could confirm his story. He apparently believed this would enhance his credibility among Palestinians so they would also accept that he didn't betray his assassinated comrades. Abu Daoud didn't want to destroy Abu Mazen's reputation; he wanted to use Abu Mazen to salvage his own.

If Abu Daoud was telling the truth, does that make Abu Mazen less credible as Israel's interlocutor? Hardly, since Palestinian-Israeli peace was always going to be built on short memories all around. Still, it does show what a preposterous game the issue of Palestinian representation has become, with some officials issued a more wholesome past to make them palatable to non-Palestinians, while others, like Arafat, stay tainted.

Abu Daoud, ended his book with an important—and relevant—thought: "Our past is what it is. … That's why I believe that real peace cannot be built on details that remain obscure to this day."