Ever since Mahmoud Abbas won the Palestinian presidency, the news out of Israel has been almost consistently positive.

Violence against Israelis in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper is down. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to scale back military operations in the West Bank and Gaza — including the targeted assassination of terrorist leaders.

Hamas, the biggest and most popular of the Palestinian terrorist groups, is considering a temporary ceasefire with Israel.

There’s even hope this climate of goodwill could restart the peace process, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.

But therein lies the problem and a reason for skepticism amidst all this optimism that borders on wishful thinking.

What we don’t know is how Abbas sees a Palestinian state. His predecessor, Yasser Arafat, had two views — one he often spoke about in English to Israel and the West, the other in Arabic to Palestinians and the broader Arab/Muslim world.

To the West, Arafat paid lip service to an independent Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel. But to Arabs and Muslims he spoke about acquiring a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as the first step in conquering all of Israel and returning it to the Umma — lands belonging in perpetuity to the Islamic faith.

As for Hamas, it has in the past temporarily ceased terrorist operations in order to allow peace talks. But it has never changed its goal — conquering all of Israel and turning it into a hardline Islamic state. Think of Afghanistan under the Taliban — armed with nuclear weapons.

As Dr. Michael Widlanksi, a political scientist at Hebrew University and an expert on the Palestinian Authority told a Toronto audience recently, “Mahmoud Abbas is better than Yasser Arafat, but that’s not saying much.”

Widlanksi notes that Abbas has never categorically rejected violence against Israel. When he describes the intifada as a failure, he does so only in terms of its failure to achieve Palestinian ends.

Dr. Arnon Groiss, director of research for the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, says the best window into the thinking of the Palestinian leadership lies in the text books the Palestinian Authority supplies Palestinian school children.

Groiss, who is fluent in Arabic, has translated 130 Palestinian Authority textbooks distributed from Grades 1 through 11.

One of the myths that arose out of the Oslo peace process, he says, is that the PA has replaced the old anti-Israel, anti-Semitic text books supplied years ago by Egypt and Jordan.

In reality, the new textbooks, while they are an improvement, still don’t mention the state of Israel by name (except in one instance in the context of the Oslo Accord) and, save for three examples in one Atlas, do not show Israel on any maps.

They falsely teach that the Jews are foreign occupiers of Palestine (not just the Occupied Territories, but all of Israel) with no historic connection to the land and no right to live there. Jews are portrayed as being of a “dubious and even murderous character” and of attempting to deceive the prophet Muhammad. Jewish holy places in Israel, the Hebrew language and the historic connections of Jews to Jerusalem are all ignored.

Tolerance and Peace

While the textbooks do talk about the importance of tolerance and peace, they exclude the possibility of peace with Israel — except in one reference in the context of Oslo.

Finally, although the texts do not explicitly advocate terrorism against Israelis, they praise those killed or captured in terrorist operations as martyrs and prisoners of war.

As Paul Michaels of the Canada-Israel Committee notes, what the Palestinians teach their children is key because “you can sign all the treaties in the world, but if you don’t prepare the next generation to accept peace, then nothing will ever change.”

David Bedein of the Israel Resource News Agency which monitors Palestinian politicians and media, says that over the past 35 years he has sensed a growing desire among ordinary Palestinians for peace with Israel and a truly democratic, corrupt-free government of their own. The problem is that this brings them into direct conflict with the Palestinian Authority.

Whether Abbas wants to change that remains the biggest question mark of all.

This piece ran in the Toronto Sun on January 30th, 2005