Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas struck a deep nerve on Tuesday when he said Israel has caused “50 Holocausts” against Palestinians, triggering outrage from world leaders and a social media storm.
“From 1947 to the present day, Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities,” Abbas said in Arabic, standing next to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a news conference in Berlin. “50 massacres, 50 Holocausts, and until today, and every day there are casualties killed by the Israeli military.”
Abbas had been asked by a journalist if he would apologize for the 1972 Olympics massacre in Munich, when members of the Israeli team were taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen, at the time part of a splinter group of Abbas’ Fatah party, leading to the death of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and one West German policeman, following an armed standoff.
This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Munich attack.
Scholz did not immediately react to Abbas on stage, but later tweeted, “I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud #Abbas. For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.”
Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Steffen Seibert, tweeted that, “What President #Abbas said in Berlin about “50 holocausts” is wrong and unacceptable. Germany will never stand for any attempt to deny the singular dimension of the crimes of the Holocaust.”
Israeli leaders also widely condemned the remark, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid saying, “Mahmoud Abbas accusing Israel of having committed ’50 Holocausts’ while standing on German soil is not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie.”
“Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, including one and a half million Jewish children. History will never forgive him,” tweeted Lapid.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz described Abbas’ words as “despicable and false.” “His statement is an attempt to distort and rewrite history,” Gantz said.
Global figures also criticized the remarks. The US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt, described them as “unacceptable,” adding that, “Holocaust distortion can have dangerous consequences and fuels antisemitism.”
Abbas’ staff sought to clarify his comments on Wednesday. “President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirms that the Holocaust is the most heinous crime that has occurred in modern human history,” read a statement from his office.
His answer “was not intended to deny the specificity of the Holocaust, which was committed in the last century, and is condemned in the strongest terms,” it added.
“What is meant by the crimes that … Abbas spoke of are the massacres committed against the Palestinian people since the Nakba by Israeli forces, crimes that have not stopped to this day,” the statement concluded. This refers to the establishment of Israel in 1948, called al-Nakba or “the catastrophe” by Palestinians, after more than 700,000 Palestinians were either expelled from or fled their homes during the resulting Arab-Israeli war.
This is not the first time that Abbas has made remarks deemed antisemitic. As a doctoral student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Abbas wrote a thesis that alleged a secret relationship between Nazis and early advocates for a Jewish state, according to Reuters. His claims resurfaced as an issue in 2018, when he said that Jews living in Europe had suffered since the 11th century “not because of their religion, [but] it was because of their social profession.”
“So the Jewish issue that had spread against the Jews across Europe was not because of their religion, it was because of usury and banks,” he said during an opening speech at Palestinian National Council (PNC), the de facto parliament for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Following mass outrage, Abbas later apologized for his comments, saying that he condemned antisemitism and calling the Holocaust the “most heinous crime in history.”
CNN’s Abeer Salman and Amir Tal contributed to this report.
Syria denies kidnapping or “hiding” American citizen
The Syrian government has denied that it “kidnapped” or is “hiding” American citizen Austin Tice, who went missing in the country a decade ago.
- Background: Tice, a freelance journalist, was detained at a checkpoint near Syrian capital Damascus in August 2012 while reporting on the country’s civil war. US President Joe Biden last week declared that the US government knows “with certainty that he has been held by the Syrian regime.” The Syrian foreign ministry said Wednesday that accusations against the Syrian government that it has “arrested” Tice are false. The ministry added: “Syria reaffirms that any dialogue or official communication with the US government will be public and based on respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and non-interference in its internal affairs.”
- Why it matters: Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the start of the Syrian conflict, and Washington has sanctioned several regime officials and militia leaders. It continues to call for a political solution to war, which has now raged for more than 10 years. Securing Tice’s release would also be a boost to Biden’s domestic popularity, as his administration has come under fire for not doing enough to bring Americans stuck abroad back home.
Israel and Turkey to restore full diplomatic ties
Israel and Turkey will restore full diplomatic ties between the two countries, including returning ambassadors and consul generals to their respective posts, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced on Wednesday.
- Background: Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador to the country in 2018 in response to the killing of 60 Palestinians by the Israeli military during protests along Gaza’s border, which were sparked by the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. Israel in turn expelled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel. Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March, followed by visits by both countries’ foreign ministers, helped thaw tensions after more than a decade of strained relations.
- Why it matters: Israel has been enjoying improved relations with regional countries without any progress towards a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The Biden administration has increasingly made it clear that it sees the Abraham Accords – a series of normalization agreements signed between Israel and Arab states – as a key plank of its Middle East diplomacy and has encouraged other regional states like Jordan and Egypt to work more closely within its framework.
State Department receives Iran’s response to EU nuclear deal proposal, spokesperson says
As efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal continue, a US State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday that it had received Iran’s response to the latest draft of the Vienna Agreement presented by the European Union.
- Background: Last week EU officials sent the US and Iran what it called the “final text” of a revived deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. On Monday night, Iran responded to the proposal in writing, meeting a deadline set by the bloc. While Iran’s written response has not been made public, the country’s chief adviser to negotiations tweeted that an agreement was closer than ever, but not yet done. Tehran is seeking guarantees it will be compensated if a future US President pulls out of the pact, a regional diplomat told CNN on Tuesday. The State Department spokesperson would not characterize the US sentiment upon receiving the Iranian response.
- Why it matters: Attempts to revive the deal, which former US President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018, have been ongoing for months, with negotiations between the US and Iran being mediated by the EU and Qatar. Iran has said any final deal should protect the rights of the country and guarantee the lifting of sanctions, which could free up tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue and boost Iran’s struggling economy. And with energy prices skyrocketing following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a resurrected nuclear deal would help lower prices and pour more barrels into Europe.
What to watch
Iran is looking for guarantees that the US will not withdraw from a revived nuclear deal should political disagreements arise with Tehran in the future, Mohammad Marandi, adviser to the Iranian negotiating team and professor at Tehran University, tells CNN’s Becky Anderson.
Watch the report here:
Around the region
A painting believed to be by Pablo Picasso and estimated to be worth millions of dollars has been found during a drugs raid in Iraq, according to authorities.
The allegedly stolen artwork was discovered on Saturday in the possession of three people in the Diyala province in central-eastern Iraq, reports the state-run Iraqi News Agency (INA).
The suspects were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the trade and transportation of narcotic drugs, according to the General Directorate for Combating Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in the country’s Ministry of Interior.
“A painting belonging to the international painter Picasso was seized in their possession, estimated at millions of dollars,” said Colonel Bilal Sobhi, director of the anti-narcotics media office, in a statement to the INA.
He added: “The drug trade is linked to many crimes, including murder, theft, kidnapping, rape, gang formation, corruption and family disintegration, until it reaches the antiquities trade.”
The raid which led to the discovery of the painting was part of the ministry’s ongoing security operations which began in July.
Details about the painting, its ownership history and how it will be authenticated are yet to be released.
By Amarachi Orie, CNN