Will fighting Palestinian incitement be a focus of U.S. peace efforts?

President Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office on May 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office on May 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Lost in the hoopla over the U.S. demands for an Israeli settlement freeze has been the Obama administration’s stepped-up emphasis on the issue of Palestinian incitement.

While it is unclear now if the focus is anything more than an effort to rhetorically balance out the recent flurry of talk about settlements, Jewish leaders welcomed the words and said stopping Palestinian incitement is a crucial element before any peace deal can be successful.

The term “incitement” refers generally to the promotion of hatred and violence against Israel in government-controlled entities, from Palestinian media to schools and textbooks to mosques. Activists on the issue say that can include everything from children’s television programs that use familiar characters to teach hatred of Israel, to anti-Semitic political cartoons in Palestinian newspapers, to naming streets and schools after deceased terrorists, to maps that don’t include Israel.

While the word was not mentioned by Obama in his Cairo speech last week, he did allude to it by condemning Holocaust denial and hatred of Jews. And the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have brought up the issue frequently in interviews and public statements in the past two weeks.

After his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month, Obama said the two leaders had engaged in a “frank exchange” about making progress on the issue.

Before his tour of the Buchenwald concentration camp June 5, Obama noted the degree to which many observers have been picking up only on his comments about settlements, with “less attention focused on the insistence on my part that the Palestinians and the Arab states have to take very concrete actions.”

In addition to security issues, he said the Palestinians “have to deal with incitement issues.”

“There’s still a tendency, even … among Palestinians who say they are interested in peace with Israel,” he added, “to engage in statements that are — that incite a hatred of Israel or are not constructive to the peace process.”

Even one of the Obama administration’s strongest critics so far among Jewish organizational leaders, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, praised the president’s comments on incitement.

“I’m pleased that he’s mentioning it” because it is “the most serious issue that makes peace impossible,” Klein said.

“As long as you teach hate,” he added, it doesn’t matter what concessions Israel makes.

Klein has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the issue for more than 15 years, since the signing of the Oslo Accords, but says other administrations, and even others in the Jewish community, have not taken it seriously enough.

In his book about the peace process, looking back at his stint as the Clinton administration’s Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross called failing to deal with Palestinian incitement a big mistake.

Klein said he brought up the issue in a meeting of Jewish leaders with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, as well as in talks with Netanyahu advisers, and has been told that the Israeli government will make it a focus in the weeks and months ahead.

The Israel Project also has made the issue a priority.

“This is the only game changer you can bring to the table,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, its founder and president.

Mizrahi noted that while Palestinians on the Fatah side are doing a much better job on security issues, incitement has not been addressed.

“If they really went after this, it would be a breakthrough of historic importance,” she said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the recent emphasis on incitement and other Palestinian obligations did seem partly a response to the appearance that the administration was leaning “too heavily on one side,” but “the good news is they listened to the criticism.”

Jewish leaders pointed out that Clinton is well equipped to deal with this issue, having been a leader in calling attention to Palestinian incitement during her eight years in the U.S. Senate.

And the U.S. Congress would likely welcome a push on incitement. One staffer said last week that while he wasn’t yet aware of a new focus on the issue, the administration would find a “receptive audience.”

An AIPAC-backed House of Representatives letter to President Obama, which garnered 329 signatures, insisted on an "absolute commitment to end terror, violence and incitement." A similar Senate letter did not specifically mention incitement.

Some observers who have focused on the incitement issue in the past say it’s not clear yet if the administration is serious.

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said that Obama has “put a very different level of demand” on the two sides.

“The issue is what did he say,” said Rubin, who has frequently written on the issue of incitement. “He said Israel must stop settlements. He said he’d like the Palestinians to stop incitement.”

Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, felt Obama was falling far short of what is necessary on the issue. By stating after his meeting with Abbas that the Palestinians need to “continue to make progress” on incitement, Obama was wrongly suggesting that there has actually been progress, said Marcus, whose organization has been monitoring Palestinian media and textbooks since the mid-1990s

“That’s a minimization” of the issue, he said. “He’s not indicating that it’s a deep ideological problem.”

Left-wing pro-Israel groups that had been pressing for an Israeli settlement freeze said they also backed measures to combat incitement.

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami said the administration should be bringing up incitement because it is part of the "road map" peace plan and “we support the notion that both sides have actual obligations to fulfill.”

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir also said it was a “legitimate concern,” but pointed to some complications because certain things are “in the eye of the beholder.”

For instance, Muslims may define Arabic terms differently than non-Muslims. And Nir points out that while Palestinians may name roads or schools after terrorists that they consider to be martyrs, roads in the Jewish state are named after Israeli heroes from the 1948 war who Palestinians would consider terrorists.

So how does one fairly monitor incitement?

Both Nir and Ben-Ami said that Abbas told those with whom he met last month in Washington that he was interested in reviving a tripartite committee to monitor both Palestinian and Israeli incitement. The committee was established as part of the 1998 Wye Accords.

That kind of set-up would be fine with Klein, who said any committee needs both Israelis and Palestinians so it can be seen as non-biased.

Inquiries to the State Department for more information on how it intended to handle incitement were not answered.

“There have been references” to it by administrations in the past, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The question is how sustained” will the effort be and “how will they follow up.”

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