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The Craftiest of Sophists Print E-mail

By Sarah Honig
May 7, 2009

It's doubtful Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ever delved into Protagoras's philosophic slyness when he was enrolled at Moscow's communist-era Russian University for Friendship between People (aka the People's Friendship University of Russia, also aka the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University).

As best befits Friendship U's academic ambiance, Abbas specialized in revising history - an endeavor which in 1982 ripened into a PhD dissertation that both denied the Holocaust yet blamed Zionists for it. Two years later Dr. Abbas further expanded and embellished his "research."

He never apologized for his brazen falsifications and never retracted so much as a single negligible nuance thereof.

But though Abbas probably never heard of Protagoras, he might as well have taken lessons from the old master himself on how to outsmart an adversary. It's hard to imagine a greater virtuoso practitioner of Protagorian tactics than Abbas - a proven whiz at having everything both ways. Win - you win. Lose - you also win.

THE ORIGINAL PROTAGORAS, after whom Plato named one of his most famous dialogues, was the foremost exponent of distortive dialectics in ancient Greece. It was the finely honed forte of thinkers known collectively as the Old Sophists. So great was Protagoras's reputation for guile that he was eagerly sought as a teacher of shifty polemics. His tutorials didn't come cheap. According to Plato, Protagoras made more than Phidias and 10 other sculptors put together.

This spurred one of Protagoras's students to elude exorbitant tuition fees by contracting an agreement that exempted him from payment until he won his first legal case. Since the student never took up litigation, Protagoras sued him - confident of victory no matter how the trial went. If the ruling favored Protagoras, he'd collect the debt owed him. If Protagoras lost, his student would pay up by virtue of having won a legal case. The student felt equally self-assured. A favorable ruling meant he's not delinquent, while losing his case freed him from having to fork anything over.

Utterly bewildered, the judges decided to adjourn for a 100 years.

Such shenanigans, of course, would hardly wow anyone in our region. We regularly witness far more outrageous flip-flops of logic and scruples - like the "two-state" formulation. No one can accuse Abbas of reneging on anything. Didn't he (sort of) recognize Israel?

Admittedly, he did refrain from acknowledging it as a Jewish state, but that was for fear of waiving the right to Arabize it. It's okay by Abbas if the name Israel is temporarily applied to the third Arab state (after Jordan and "Palestine") in historic Eretz Yisrael and the original British Mandate territory. This doesn't preclude overrunning it with millions of "repatriated" Arab refugees. The name will be changed later by the resultant Arab majority. No need to quibble about it prematurely.

'WE DON'T ACCEPT the term 'Jewish state' and insist on achieving all our rights," Abbas announced unequivocally in Ramallah last week. "We say that Israel is a state and the Israelis have the right to call themselves whatever they wish. But I don't accept this. At the Annapolis peace conference, we told the Israelis that we only recognize the State of Israel... never a Jewish state."

While Protagoras and his artful dodger student both would be hard put to unsnarl the above tangle, they'd readily recognize Abbas as one of their own and salute him as the craftiest of sophists. Abbas's primary ruse is in convincing foreigners that the Mideast dispute can be settled by erasing Israel's 1967 victory to facilitate the establishment of a heretofore never-existent Palestinian state.

Simultaneously in internal Arab discourse it's obvious that the "occupation" and clamoring for a Palestinian state are nothing but pretexts to persist in a conflict that dates back to the mid-19th century, and to delegitimize any Jewish entity in this land. From Abbas's perspective, the real grievance isn't the absence of yet another Arab state in original Palestine but the survival therein of the single Jewish state.

Leftist Israeli wishful thinking and yearnings for simplistic solutions helped market the deception that territorial concessions are all that's required. However, the Palestinians leave no room for a Jewish presence. The second clause of their constitution (not a Hamas-wrought document but one authored by supposedly respectable statesmen, headed by Fatah's own Nabil Sha'ath) describes Palestinians as part of the "Islamic nation." Clause 5 specifies Islam as the state's established religion. Clause 7 bases all legislation on Islam.

THE PALESTINIAN STATE (initially slated for Gaza, Judea and Samaria) is to be judenrein and Muslim. Jordan, comprising nearly 80 percent of original Palestine, already is judenrein (by law) and Muslim. That leaves the tiny remnant which Abbas would allow to provisionally be known as Israel. It wouldn't be Jewish but an indeterminate amorphous concoction, which already includes a sizable Arab irredentist population, and which is to be further inundated by untold millions of hostile Arabs claiming spurious refugee status.

With that in mind, Protagoras's disciple offered to resume peace talks with Israel on the basis of the 2002 Saudi initiative, the two-state stratagem and that tattered American "road map."
"The [Saudi] peace initiative is no longer an Arab initiative," Abbas stressed with Protagorian cunning. "It has become part of the road map, which has been endorsed by the Quartet, and as such it's an internationally recognized peace plan. We don't want to impose an Arab-Islamic peace vision on the Israelis, but this is an international plan."

A mantra to make Protagoras proud.

The Saudi plan to overwhelm Israel with Arab "returnees" was indeed embraced by the international community (no skin off European and American noses). It may appear innocuous to the uninitiated. Others don't mind its catastrophic consequences for Israel.

The world enthusiastically endorses the inbuilt asymmetry that obliges Israel to recognize a second Arab-Palestinian state while Arabs refuse to accept the legitimacy of one ethnic Jewish state. This lopsidedness is based on the premise that Israel is an occupier (in its own homeland), while migrant/conquistador Arabs are downtrodden natives.

Abbas can thus welsh on his undeniable road map commitments, yet maintain that he fulfills them to the letter. If he gets away with it - as the international community is quite content to let him - then he becomes an Arab hero. If Israel, however, won't fully acquiesce to his prevarications, he'll pose as the wronged, piteously pleading weakling. Israeli vocal-locals would avidly corroborate his assertions of helplessness, while the international community would offer unstinting succor. Abbas can't lose.

He's safe so long as no one gets wise to his sophist wiles and looks up Aristotle's warnings against the Protagoras pattern of "making the weaker arguments sound stronger" and the false sound true.

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