Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: To end Palestinian incitement, first define it

(JTA) — A former Clinton administration envoy has let the cat out of the bag on the issue of Palestinian incitement, putting him squarely at odds with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Shibley Telhami was one of the Clinton administration’s representatives to the Trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee. Never heard of it? That’s because after meeting a few times in 1999-2000, the committee stopped functioning. Now we know why.

In a Washington Post Op-Ed on Dec. 6, Telhami revealed that the committee hit an impasse because the Israeli and Palestinian representatives “could not agree how to define incitement.” The Israelis “would present, for instance, a statement by a Muslim religious figure against Israel, and Palestinians would respond by citing settlement construction or episodes of Palestinian humiliation.”

Not quite. The problem is not an occasional statement “by a Muslim religious figure.” Everyone understands that the Palestinian Authority cannot be held responsible for every opinion expressed by some individual Palestinian. The problem is that those Muslim religious figures are sometimes paid officials of the Palestinian Authority and their statements are sometimes broadcast by authority-funded news media. The Palestinian Authority must be held accountable for statements made by its own officials or disseminated by its media outlets.

The Palestinian position is, of course, absurd. “Settlement construction” and “humiliation” are not incitement. Just because the Palestinians don’t like Jews building homes in Jerusalem (“settlement construction”) or Palestinians being checked for weapons at security checkpoints (“humiliation”) doesn’t make it incitement.

The American representatives to the committee, as rational people, should have been able to distinguish between the reasonable Israeli position and the unreasonable Palestinian one. It is not “taking sides” for U.S. envoys to acknowledge obvious facts. If a delegate to a scientific committee said the earth was round and another delegate said the earth was flat, the U.S. representative should not have a problem acknowledging that the earth is round.

Telhami and his colleagues obviously did have such a problem. They never defined incitement and as a result the committee served no purpose.

The main point of Telhami’s Op-Ed was to minimize the significance of incitement. This gets him and the Palestinian leadership off the hook: Telhami for his miserable performance on the Trilateral Committee, and the Palestinian leaders for their vicious incitement against Jews and Israel.

“Incitement can make matters worse, but it is rarely a primary cause of violence and often is its outcome,” Telhami asserted.

Kerry disagrees.

“To have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement, of calls for ‘days of rage,’ of just irresponsibility, is unacceptable,” Kerry said last month following the terrorist attack that killed five Israelis in a Jerusalem synagogue.

Kerry appeared to be referring to the fact that on Oct. 30, the Fatah movement — chaired by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — called on the Palestinian public to stage “days of rage” against Israelis. Abbas himself vowed to prevent the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from being “contaminated” by Jews. Official Palestinian websites featured political cartoons showing Palestinians running over Jews with their cars. One cartoon showed an Israeli soldier about to rape a Muslim woman who was labeled “Al Aqsa.”

Obviously Kerry was right. Palestinian leaders and media called for violence, and violence followed. Telhami can’t see it because he doesn’t want to.

The Trilateral Committee on Incitement needs to be revived, but this time with a clear definition of what constitutes “incitement.” It wouldn’t be difficult to do. Many precedents in international law enable us to accurately define incitement.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Julius Streicher, publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, was convicted of incitement to mass murder. In 2003, a Rwandan newspaper editor and two radio broadcasters were convicted by the International Criminal Court of incitement to genocide because they used dehumanizing language and encouraged violence.

So I thank Shibley Telhami for being unintentionally upfront about the reasons for the failure of the anti-incitement committee. Now that we know what went wrong and why, we can fix it, guided by Kerry’s powerful words about the incitement that led to the Jerusalem massacre.

(Stephen Flatow is a lawyer in New Jersey. He is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was killed in a terrorist attack in 1995 while studying in Israel.)