The curious Israeli half-battle against ‘Palestinian incitement’

Netanyahu warns repeatedly that Palestinian children being taught to hate Israel ‘lays the groundwork’ for continued terrorism. So why isn’t he reviving the joint panel designed to counter the malaise?

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Palestinian boy walks past a wall painted with graffiti reading 'Death to Israel' in the northern Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, July 2008 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
A Palestinian boy walks past a wall painted with graffiti reading 'Death to Israel' in the northern Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, July 2008 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

On October 28, 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down at the White House next to his greatest foe, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Under the tutelage of US President Bill Clinton, the two leaders grudgingly signed the Wye River Memorandum, paving the way for the implementation of the Interim Agreement, the second phase of the Oslo Accords.

Netanyahu was hardly eager to follow through with the despised territorial withdrawals and prisoner releases prescribed by the Oslo Accords, which were inherited from the Rabin government. But at least, in return for his compliance, the Palestinians were to issue a decree “prohibiting all forms of incitement to violence or terror” and a trilateral committee would be formed, tasked with monitoring and combating Palestinian hate speech.

Fifteen years later, now in his third term as prime minister, Netanyahu still invokes Palestinian incitement as a key stumbling block to peace, scarcely missing an opportunity to publicly lambaste the PA for inciting to violence against Israelis.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu told his cabinet that “ongoing incitement” in “official Palestinian media” was behind an attack against a 9-year-old girl in Psagot (the perpetrator of which has not yet been caught). In a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry in August, Netanyahu claimed that Palestinian children were taught to hate Israel, “laying the groundwork for continued violence and terror.”

Judging by some of the material emerging from Palestinian media, Netanyahu may have a good point. On September 13, for instance, PA Religious Endowments Minister Mahmoud Al-Habash glorified the deceased Hamas spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin on Palestinian public television, calling him “a figurehead of Palestinian patriotism,” Palestinian Media Watch found. Israel considers Yassin to be responsible for dozens of Hamas terror attacks costing the lives of hundreds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a peace conference in Washington, D.C. on September 2, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at a peace conference in Washington, DC, on September 2, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

In a second recent report, PMW found that a children’s magazine associated with the PA saw fit to cite well-known sayings attributed to Adolf Hitler. Anti-Israel and anti-semitic entries abound on websites and Facebook pages associated with Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas’s political movement.

But what exactly constitutes Palestinian incitement? Calls for violence, or — more broadly — any negative characterization of Jews or Israelis by Palestinians? Does the incitement have to appear in “official” media (an elusive term in itself) to merit official Israeli concern and protest, or can it appear anywhere?

These are some of the questions which the trilateral committee created at Wye — comprising a media specialist, a law enforcement representative, an educational specialist and an elected official from each side — was meant to grapple with.

But in its roughly two years of activity, the committee never reached agreement on these questions. Boaz Ganor, a counter-terrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah (IDC), who was appointed by then foreign minister Ariel Sharon to head the subcommittee on incitement in textbooks, said that the committee was doomed from the start due to the “extremist” personalities of Israeli team head Uri Dan and Palestinian team head Marwan Kanafani.

“Under Uri Dan, the committee didn’t really function. In diplomatic language we say ‘the importance of the meeting was in its very existence,” Ganor told The Times of Israel. “We didn’t even agree on the basic question of what constitutes incitement. For weeks we tried to define what it even is.”

A mother shows her son a book with a map defining all of Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas as "Palestine" and tells him: "This is your bride... when you grow up you will know the dowry." PA official daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, March 31, 2012.
A mother shows her son a book with a map defining all of Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas as “Palestine” and tells him: “This is your bride… when you grow up you will know the dowry.” PA official daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, March 31, 2012.

The committee met every two months from the end of 1998 until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000, continuing briefly during the tenure of Ehud Barak. Its only tangible achievement, Ganor said, was the establishment of a hotline through which each side could report cases of perceived incitement in real time to the other.

Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor, January 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor, January 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Very quickly the entire process became a boxing match in a bid to win points with the Americans,” Ganor said, recalling an event where the Palestinian delegation chief revealed his tactic of stymieing the talks.

“As he was enjoying a meal during one of the meetings, Marwan Kanafani exposed the secret of how he explodes the meetings, saying that when he doesn’t want any progress to be made, he changes the subject to Ariel Sharon,” Ganor said. “Something along the lines of ‘that’s incitement? What Arik Sharon says is incitement!’ Immediately Uri Dan would lose his temper and start shouting and blaming, and the whole thing would collapse.”

While deeply skeptical of the Oslo process, Ganor, for his part, said he told his American counterpart that if the only outcome of Oslo would be the removal of incitement from school textbooks, “the entire process — even if it does not produce peace right now — would be worthwhile.”

“The problem was one of good faith; there was nothing wrong with the mechanism. The main blame lies undoubtedly with the Palestinians, but the [Israeli] committee heads didn’t regard this as something which was meant to examine us [as well]. Arafat’s decision to appoint Marwan Kanafani was effectively a decision to bury the committee, but the fact that Uri Dan was put on the other side didn’t add to its success.”

Good faith is essential if incitement is to be curbed, agreed Tel Aviv University political psychology professor Daniel Bar-Tal, who recently led a study which found that blatant dehumanization and delegitimization are all but absent from Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. Netanyahu’s government, he said, uses the “incitement card” as a public relations tool rather than viewing it as a genuine stumbling block which must be addressed in the service of peace-building.

“In Israel we encounter this repetitive claim of [Palestinian] incitement in order to delegitimize the Palestinian side and mobilize the Israeli public and international community,” Bar-Tal told The Times of Israel. “This doesn’t mean that so-called incitement doesn’t exist on both sides.”

In the absence of a bilateral mechanism to define and tackle incitement, nongovernmental organizations such as Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI have blossomed, directly conveying their (sometimes controversial) findings to Israeli decision-makers. In Netanyahu’s last government, the resources of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs were also utilized to document and present evidence of official and non-official Palestinian incitement. Israeli negotiator and Netanyahu associate Yitzhak Molcho brought with him a book penned by the organization to a meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jordan in January 2012.

At a meeting with Israeli parliamentarians earlier this month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged that incitement still permeates Palestinian media and called on Netanyahu to reactivate the defunct trilateral incitement committee.

It is Netanyahu, Bar-Tal insisted, who consistently refuses to reconvene the trilateral committee. A second source, an insider who has discussed the issue with the prime minister, confirmed that Netanyahu has shown no enthusiasm for reactivating the committee.

‘Very quickly the entire process became a boxing match in a bid to win points with the Americans,’ Ganor said

“This indicates that his intentions are not so pure,” Bar-Tal said. “There are hundreds of experts in Israel on this subject, but neither Netanyahu nor Sharon would appoint any of them [to the committee].”

A spokesman at the Prime Minister’s Office refused to address the reasons for the committee’s inactivity.

Some Israelis involved in past negotiations are adamant that incitement is still being used by the Palestinians to fuel a possible future confrontation with Israel.

“The story of PA incitement should be understood as a way of guarding the flame of possible armed resistance if Israel doesn’t follow through with its part in the political process,” said Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli, who headed the Interim Agreement Administration under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and later became a driving force in the Geneva Peace Initiative.

“You can’t reach reconciliation early without trusting that the other side will deliver. [Palestinians] need to maintain a mobilized society at a certain level, and they do so in this way,” Arieli told The Times of Israel.

He added, however, that Palestinian incitement — troubling as it may be — should not stunt Israel’s bid to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

“At the end of the day, when an agreement is signed, [incitement] will become marginal. With an agreement we can move to the second stage of the process, namely reconciliation. That’s when the national narratives of both sides should be dealt with, no earlier.”

Ganor of the IDC disagreed.

“It’s much easier to deal with tangible issues like borders, lines, and colors on a map than with nebulous issues like the definition of incitement,” he said. “However, I think we cannot advance to true peace — even if we agree on this border or that — without uprooting incitement. The two elements must go hand in hand.”

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