Looking for a glaring example of false equivalence and misleading analysis presented as informed Israeli-Palestinian commentary? If so, then Shibley Telhami’s column, “Hopelessness is what stokes the Mideast,” (The Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2014 print edition) will do nicely.
A more accurate headline would have been “Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel stokes hopelessness over peace prospects.” But that headline would have required substance beneath.
Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. His bad history and worse interpretation, objectionable in a campus newspaper, does serve a purpose: It renews attention to The Post’s chronic failure in news and Op-Ed columns—unlike the occasional editorial—to come confront Palestinian anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish propaganda.
Telhami claims that “incitement can make matters worse, but it is rarely a primary cause of violence and often is its outcome.” Making matters worse ought to be enough for the professor to take seriously.
Anti-Tutsi propaganda—dehumanization and incitement to violence—by Hutu radio proceeded and accompanied the 1994 Rwandan genocide (see, for example, “Rwandans mark 20th anniversary of genocide amid reminder that justice has yet to be done,” Washington Post, April 7, 2014). Today the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda, Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) and similar Muslim supremacist groups use traditional and new communications media to radicalize, recruit and incite adherents to violence. And, of course, nearly 2,000 years of church-related anti-Jewish teachings, on top of which came a century of “scientific antisemitism,” crowned by two decades of increasingly annihilationist Nazi propaganda, paved the way for the Holocaust.
Telhami’s Op-Ed turns on his assertion that “the horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue last month has generated heated discussion about the causes of violence. The latest villain—an old one, really—is inflammatory Palestinian rhetoric. But it’s the wrong explanation for a much deeper problem.”
Telhami avoids them, but the roots of anti-Israel incitement are visible. Jews and Christians—the latter being driven out of ancient homelands across the Middle East—are dhimmi in Islam. They are to be “protected” as “people of the Book” from and by the Muslim majority, so long as they accept second-class status. Jews also are co-religionists only, not a people entitled to a state (see, for example “Islam and Dhimmitude; Where Civilizations Collide,” by Bat Ye’or, 2001; review, Middle East Quarterly, Fall, 2002).
The first Palestinian nationalist leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini—an Islamic religious as well as political figure—used false claims that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque was threatened by Jews to incite massacres in the 1920s and ’30s (“The Battle Over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount,” Nov. 6, 2014, CAMERA). His successor, self-proclaimed disciple and purported nephew, Yasser Arafat, used and combined nationalist and religious incitement as expedient. Today not only the theologically-driven Hamas but also the “moderate” Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peddle the old libel that “al-Aqsa is under attack” and praise and encourage the resultant “Jerusalem intifada.”
Telhami claims “both Arab and Israeli leaders have been guilty of incitement and provocation, but the degree to which their words have effect is itself debatable.” Anti-Israel, anti-Jewish incitement from Palestinian leaders is constant, violent and, apparently, publicly acceptable, as a glance at the Web sites of Palestinian Media Watch or Middle East Media Research Institute demonstrates. For example, Abbas’ praise of the Palestinian fanatic who attempted to assassinate Rabbi Yehuda Glick last month (“Abbas glorifies shooter of Rabbi Glick,” Palestinian Media Watch, Dec. 3, 2014). There is, Telhami notwithstanding, virtually nothing similar from Israeli leaders of any party, left to right, or from any Jewish religious stream, from liberal to ultra-Orthodox, or within the Israeli pubic.
The professor’s language is temperate. He refers to his own research and personal involvement with the Oslo-era U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian anti-incitement committee. But he makes his case by ignoring or misconstruing events.
Downplaying the cause-and-effect role of Palestinian anti-Israeli incitement, Telhami writes “after five decades of occupation, Palestinians are no closer to freedom, and Israelis are no closer to peace; most have given up hope on the very possibility of two states.” This loss of hope “is far more powerful than the utterances of any individual.” So he concludes that “the collapse of negotiations in 2000 and the advent of more violence would have negated any anti-incitement deal.”
Failure to define terms gives Telhami unlimited wiggle-room. Negotiations didn’t spontaneously collapse at Camp David in 2000. Arafat rejected an Israeli-U.S. offer of a West Bank and Gaza Strip state, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, in exchange for peace with Israel as a Jewish state. Instead of making a counter-offer, he walked out.
Telhami’s “five decades of occupation” also hinge on Arafat’s rejection at Taba in 2001
of an enhanced “two-state” deal and Abbas’ decision to walk away from a similar Israeli proposal in 2008. If Palestinian Arabs “are no closer to freedom” and many Israelis “have given up hope on the very possibility of two states,” the failure of Arafat and Abbas to comply with their original Oslo “peace process” commitments to end incitement and educate their people for coexistence might have something to do with it.
Telhami’s implicit argument that words don’t have consequences, or at least that hate-filled words and images aimed at Israelis from the Palestinian side cause limited effects ought to be a strange one for an academic. But for someone who uses language with the imprecision of a pop artist using paint, perhaps it’s necessary.
The professor says the anti-incitement committee, on which he served, was established in the late 1990s “to appease” Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister. In fact, the 1993 Oslo process made anti-incitement and the corollary teaching of peace one of its key features.
Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian leaders had been violating these Oslo provisions from the start, for example restoring and expanding anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish incitement that Israel had excised from Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks in use in West Bank and Gaza Strip schools before the 1967 Six-Day War (“Palestinian Textbooks: Incitement, Anti-Semitism & Hatred of Israel in Palestinian School Textbooks,” November, 2001, JewishVirtualLibrary). Netanyahu argued that Palestinian incitement—including denial of Jewish history in the land of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood—indicated Palestinian goals. The Israeli leader argued that “peace education” ought to be, like other peace process obligations, “reciprocal.” The United States and his Israeli political opposition pressured him, ultimately successfully, not to insist on a reciprocity that, by Palestinian refusal to comply, would derail diplomacy.
Telhami writes that Israeli and Palestinian authorities “could not agree how to define incitement. Israelis would present, for instance, a statement by a Muslim religious figure … and Palestinian would respond by citing settlement construction. … [S]o it went—with each side downplaying the examples of the other or simply rejecting them.”
Telhami deals in straw men and false equivalence, claiming “most Palestinians rejected terrorism against Israelis in the 1990s when there was genuine hope for peace, while the overwhelming majority of Israelis rejected expelling Palestinians from their homes. Attitudes changed after negotiations collapsed.”
Few if any credible public opinion polls then or now have shown a Palestinian majority rejecting terrorism outright or supporting a two-state solution if that meant a) recognition of Israel as the one Jewish state in exchange for establishment of “Palestine” as the 23rd Arab country, b) an end to the conflict and c) “return” of “Palestinian refugees” to the new Arab state, not Israel. A current public opinion survey shows overwhelming Palestinian support for terrorist attacks on Jews, at least partly linked to the false belief, incited by official Palestinian sources, that Israel threatens al-Aqsa mosque (“Poll shows strong Palestinian support for attacks,” November 9, Associated Press/Washington Post).
On the other hand, a 50 percent plus one majority, let alone “an overwhelming majority” among Israelis never has supported expelling Arabs from their homes, either in Israel proper or the disputed territories.
Telhami concludes, in the manner of a jumbled word game, “if an agreement appealing to majorities on both sides is reached, incitement will be widely ignored.” Properly sorted, the phrase would read “if Palestinian Arabs widely ignored antisemitic, anti-Zionist incitement, an agreement appealing to majorities on both sides could be reached.”
The Post prints a jumbled word game in its comics section. Telhami’s jumble, no game, did not merit publication, in print or online.