Khaled Abu Toameh paid a return visit to the Philadelphia area last night. It was a nasty night, with lots of hard rain and wind. And the hall was packed.
I was a little reluctant to venture out in that mess myself, wondering if I was just going to hear the same things I heard a year and a half ago. But I figured I should show up anyway. Smart move.
This time, Khaled's visit was sponsored by CAMERA. And he most certainly had some new things to say. Significantly, he seems to be much less impressed by President Bush these days. Back in April, 2004, he said, only half joking, that Bush was "the savior of the Arab masses" -- that Bush's hard-line wake up call was exactly the right approach to plant the seeds of democracy in the Middle East. Last night, he had a different message.
"I don't trust any of these Abus," he said. "And if Condoleeza Rice does, that's her problem."
U.S. support for Abu Mazen (he referred to Abbas throughout the evening by that name alone) drives palestinians into the arms of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The PA is still run by Arafat cronies. Arafat is gone, but "Arafatism" remains, the old Tunis crowd is still in charge and nothing has really changed. The money the U.S. sends to the PA will disappear under Abu Mazen the same way it disappeared under Arafat. Why do we never learn?
It sends the wrong message, he says, when Condoleeza Rice stands up and praises Abbas for consolidating the security forces, when on the street just outside you can see armed representatives of the several different branches, each still bearing their own insignia. It doesn't help for Rice to applaud the PA's cessation of anti-Israel incitement when the same day their own government controlled newspapers are full of virulent examples of such incitement. There have been no reforms of the security services, no reforms of corruption, no decrease in incitement. And yet the White House pretends otherwise. To what end?
Khaled drops a little bomb, as I've heard him do before, as if his rapt audience needs to be shocked into paying even closer attention. Isn't it important to prop up Abu Mazen if the alternative is Hamas? No, he says. In fact, he would vote for Hamas himself. Hamas is building the hospitals and the playgrounds and the schools. The PA isn't doing that. It's using the funds it solicits from the international community to pay for the shopping sprees of a certain lady in Paris. And it's the current regime that's stifling dissent and threatening anyone who dares to challenge it. It's the PA security forces, subsidized by that same international community, that are the real problem.
Yes, Hamas also recruits and supports suicide bombers. But there is no difference, he says, between Hamas and the PA when it comes to the desire for the destruction of Israel.
But aren't Abu Mazen's hands tied? Isn't he doing a dangerous balancing act between reining in terror and triggering a civil war? Khaled Abu Toameh dismisses this suggestion out of hand. Abu Mazen was elected with a mandate to bring reform and disarm the terrorists. The people want accountability and calm and order, they want the normal life that Arafat was bent on denying them. Fear of civil war is a transparent excuse for failure to act.
Finally, don't all of the Muslims just want to kill the Jews? "Well, I'm a Muslim, and I don't want to kill Jews," Khaled says quietly (while most of us look very hard at our laps). He goes on to explain that the Islam he grew up with teaches respect for others, tolerance, charity and peace. And I realize with mild surprise that I believe him.