Benjamin Joffe-Walt
The Media Line
September 5, 2010 - 12:00am

The Mahmouds... For years they’ve appeared publicly to be allies.

When resources were low, one rushed to the rescue of the other. When one of their rhetorical wheels would run dry, the other would pipe-in with eloquent axioms.

But now, the truth about the Mahmouds has been revealed and these two former buddies have fallen out in a public barrage of invective.

In the one corner we have disputed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the self-proclaimed champion of the Palestinian cause and supporter of Palestinian militant movements.

Opposing him stands disputed Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas, long time symbolic leader of the Palestinian people, who finds himself caught between American pressure to negotiate with Israel and popular Arab opinion against such ventures.

The two Mahmouds started going at it over the weekend as ‘Abbas returned from the first direct Israeli Palestinian peace talks in almost two years. Launched at the White House by U.S. President Barack Obama with much pomp and circumstance, Middle Eastern pundits and politicians depicted the peace-making attempt as akin to an attempt to send a space shuttle to Pluto.

But the Iranian president took the cake on Friday with a tirade against ‘Abbas during a Tehran University rally.

"These talks are death," he told the crowd of thousands. "There is no reason to hold talks."

“Who does ‘Abbas represent?” the Iranian leader asked. “Who gave him the mandate to negotiate in behalf of the Palestinians? What will they talk about – Palestine? Who has the right to surrender parts of Palestine to the enemy?"

‘Abbas’ spokesperson immediately shot back, not only telling the Iranian president to mind his own business, but accusing the embattled leader of oppressing his own people

"He who does not represent the Iranian people, suppresses the Iranian people and took power by fraud, has no right to talk about Palestine, its chairman or his representatives," spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh told Wafa, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency. "President Abbas was elected in a free election, in the presence of more than a thousand international observers… We defend our national rights and our national interests and we will not allow anyone to threaten us or call into question the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by President ‘Abbas.”

Dr Ghassan Khatib, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Faya’d, supported the criticism of Ahmadinejad.

“I agree with what Mr. Rudeineh said,” he told The Media Line. “Perhaps not to this level of hostility, but the Iranians have been taking this aggressive line against the Palestinian Authority all along, and they have been supporting Hamas, the opponent of the Palestinian Authority.”

There has been significant tension between Fatah and Hamas since the death of Palestinian National Authority President Yassir Arafat in late 2004.

That tension became outright hostility in 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, leading to an awkward situation in which Fatah leader Mahmoud ‘Abbas remained president of the Palestinian National Authority while Hamas leader Isma’il Haniyya led the government as prime minister.

Violent clashes between the two sides ended with Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and pushing Fatah out.

Iran is both polically and economically supportive of Hamas, but this weekend’s exchange was a highly uncharacteristic public discourse between Iran and the Palestinian Authority.

Hamid Tehrani, Iran editor of Global Voices Online, an aggregator of online opinion, said that while the exchange marked a change in diplomatic behavior, the content was nothing new.

“It may be unprecedented for them to fight publicly, but it’s not surprising given their policies,” he told The Media Line. “It’s very clear that Iran has funded Hamas, and even back when Yassir Arafat started to negotiate with Israel, Iranian leaders called him a traitor. Once an Iranian interior minister even defended Arafat, saying that if the Palestinians want to make peace it’s up to them, and he got in trouble for that comment. So there is nothing new here.”

Sameh Habeeb, Chief Editor of The Palestine Telegraph newspaper in Gaza, agreed with Tehrani.

“To me it was not surprising, Ahmadinejad clearly supports Hamas so it’s obvious he would be against ‘Abbas,” he told The Media Line. “What’s funny is both of them are right. Factually speaking, the accusation that Abbas is illegitimate is correct. His term finished long ago, and has not been renewed by the Palestinian Legislative Council. As for Ahmadinejad, he is in the same boat and also not 100% legitimate, as we saw after the Iranian elections.”

Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian blogger supportive of the Green Movement, said he was pleased by the Palestinian Authority’s statements over the weekend.

“I’m actually glad,’ he told The Media Line. “The Palestinians have been mainly silent about the opposition to the regime in Iran, and there has been very little support from the Palestinians for the Green Movement in Iran, just a few intellectuals here and there.”

I wish Ahmadinejad would just shutup about the Palestinians and deal with the mess he’s created in Iran,” Azarmehr said. “If you treat your people with so much brutality, how can you liberate anyone, including the Palestinians?”

But Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian journalist and political correspondent with Foreign Policy Journal, supported the Iranian president’s stance.

“In my view Ahmadinejad was accurate and precise,” he told The Media Line. “It’s not Iran’s decision, but the Palestinians have voted in favor of the Hamas party, which means that Hamas represents the Palestinian people.”

“If there is a democratic referendum in Palestine in which all Palestinians from all regions take part, and they vote in favor of talks with Israel, that would be a democratic and legitimate decision,” Ziabari said. “But that is not what happened.”


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