On May 3, just two days before Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were to resume through American mediation, Israel’s deputy foreign minister appeared alongside the head of a right-wing research organization at a press conference in Jerusalem to release new evidence that the Palestinians are not, in fact, ready for peace.
It’s what you might call a confidence-building measure, Middle East style.
The research organization, Palestinian Media Watch, had convened the press conference to unveil a new report, “The Palestinian Authority’s Institutionalization of Incitement.” The 26-page paper describes 100 cases in which the authority has named a street, school, youth group, soccer tournament or other institution after a Palestinian terrorist. “Honoring terrorists envelops and plays a significant part in defining the Palestinian world,” the report says in its introduction. It goes on to say: “Honoring a terrorist is incitement to murder.”
Accepting the report on the government’s behalf was Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, best remembered for seating the Turkish ambassador on a silly sofa. “The continuation of incitement on the part of the Palestinians will not help build trust and understanding between us,” Ayalon told the press conference, according to a Palestinian Media Watch statement. “Therefore, before the start of the talks, the P.A. must decide if it is a partner for true peace and stop the ongoing incitement and boycotts against Israel.”
From a certain point of view, inappropriate street names might seem a rather slender reed on which to hang the legitimacy of a negotiating partner and, by extension, the fate of a peace process that has the whole world watching and waiting on tenterhooks. Bringing up the issue at this delicate moment raises some awkward questions. For one, has anybody noticed that the Palestinian Authority is actually making serious efforts to curb actual terrorism?
Halting terrorism has been Israel’s most urgent demand of the Palestinians for decades. The only other demand that ever approached it in importance was that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s sovereign right to a secure existence.
As for the demand for recognition, it lost some if its urgency in 1988 when the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s governing assembly, voted to accept the original United Nations partition of the Holy Land into a Jewish state and an Arab state, thereby accepting Israel’s legitimacy. Israel formally reciprocated the PLO’s recognition with a handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. Since then the endless rounds of negotiations have mainly been about one thing: how to redraw the partition lines. Negotiators have repeatedly come close, but they haven’t closed the deal. In any case, recognition is now a given.
Except that in the past year, recognition has been thrown back on the table — not by the Palestinians but by Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reopened that door shortly after taking office with a demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel not just as a sovereign state, but as a Jewish state. It was an ingenious ploy: Countries don’t seek or offer recognition of each other’s forms of government or domestic social arrangements; they simply recognize other countries’ sovereign right to make those decisions for themselves. But when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected the recognition demand, the Netanyahu government and its overseas allies were able to portray the rejection as a refusal to recognize Israel.
The demand to end terrorism, too, is a bit shaky. Israel’s annual death toll from terrorism has fluctuated since 1948, according to an analysis of Foreign Ministry figures, between 10 or 12 deaths in a good year and 60 or 70 in a bad year (and 451 at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002). By contrast, the toll in all of 2009 was six deaths, the lowest in Israel’s history. The death toll so far in 2010: one. And yet the fear of Palestinian terrorism remains a central theme in Jewish communal affairs.
Still, there are those street names and soccer tournaments. Their message of Palestinian ill will seems clear enough. And they’re not the only ones. Jewish watchdog groups regularly document anti-Israel and antisemitic content in official Palestinian Authority newspapers, on its television, in its school textbooks and even in Friday mosque sermons. At worst, Jews are called dogs and pigs, and Muslims are exhorted to kill them. More commonly, Israelis are accused of Nazism, apartheid and wanton disregard for Palestinian lives and property.
That sort of language is deeply troubling. If you look closely, though, you can find much if it echoed in the more extreme Israeli and Jewish warnings about Arabs and Muslims: that they don’t value human life, that they are programmed to hate, that they’re required to treat Jews as inferior, that their real aim is to exterminate the Jews, that they are the modern Amalek and deserve the fate of that hated tribe. They say our ancient ties to Jerusalem are a fiction; we comb their holy book to show that their tie to the city is imagined.
In the final analysis, much of what we consider hate speech coming from our enemies boils down to their overheated warnings about the dangers we pose to them. Conversely, our most perfervid warnings about the threat they pose to us end up sounding to them like hate speech. Which only goes to confirm their dim view of us.
One could carry the parallelism too far. The passion with which so many Muslims seek our destruction finds, if at all, only the faintest echo among Jews. Worship of suicidal terrorism hasn’t found mainstream acceptance in Israel. Some of us might wish that Israel had different neighbors with whom to make peace. But it doesn’t.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).