Stop the rhetoric and let’s start talking now

Even as indirect peace talks start this week between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Israel's Foreign Ministry has begun waging a negative campaign against President Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, accusing them of “incitement”. Rather than demonstrating his seriousness of intent by engaging Palestinian leaders positively, it appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government would prefer to attack them by pursuing red herrings like incitement.



At a press conference last week, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon appeared alongside Itamar Marcus, a right-wing settler and director of an Israeli NGO called Palestinian Media Watch, to receive a report produced by PMW. Later in the week, Marcus appeared on Capitol Hill to present his report to Congress. In the U.S., PMW has been running ads on major television networks of late echoing the accusations of incitement against President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.



What Ayalon and Marcus failed to mention is that PMW is closely connected to the New York-based Central Fund of Israel, which gives money to some of the most extreme elements in Israel’s settler movement, including a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement that is home to Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who published a book last year justifying the killing of gentile babies on the grounds they might grow up to pose a threat to the state.



Ironically, if PMW’s television ads were produced by Palestinians and aimed at Israelis, they would no doubt constitute incitement according Israel’s definition. Indeed, that definition seems to include any action or statement critical of Israeli policy. Thus, the encouragement of non-violent protest against Israel’s 43-year-old military occupation, the banning of goods produced in settlements by the PA, and attempts to make Israel respect Palestinian rights at international forums like the United Nations all qualify.



While Israeli officials spend their time sifting through the Palestinian media looking for objectionable content, the perpetrators of a string of arson attacks against mosques in the West Bank remain at large. In the villages of Yasuf, Hawara, and most recently, Luban, mosques have been desecrated and torched by settlers who have also set fire to cars and olive groves. In the Yasuf attack, the aforementioned Rabbi Shapira was arrested and questioned by Israeli authorities before being released.



According to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Israel is legally responsible for the security and wellbeing of Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), yet little has been done to reign in violent, extremist settlers who pose a threat not only to Palestinian life and property, but to the peace process itself.



Attacks such as these – carried out by armed settlers deliberately implanted in Palestinian areas by successive Israeli governments in contravention of international law – do more to incite Palestinian anger and frustration than any speech or television program ever could. They also increasingly threaten to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious rather than a political one.



Likewise, each new settlement announcement, like the one that derailed the Obama administration’s attempts to start proximity talks during Vice-President Biden’s visit to the region in March, also incites Palestinian anger, as we witness ever more of our land being by colonized by Israel. Just this past Sunday, Israel’s Peace Now revealed that construction has begun on new settlement units in the Ras al Amoud neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem.



During Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister in the 1990s, he made much of the issue of incitement while simultaneously dragging his feet when it came to honoring Israel’s obligations under previously signed agreements. The 1998 Wye Agreement called for a three way US-Palestinian-Israeli committee to limit incitement on both sides, but it fell into disuse after doing little work and the Israelis have refused our requests to reactivate it.



Despite the propaganda emanating from Israel’s Foreign Ministry and groups like PMW, President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Netanyahu government’s focus on incitement is a digression and an attempt to avoid discussing substantive issues and the implementation of previous agreements, such as the first phase of 2003’s Road Map. If Prime Minister Netanyahu prefers to play semantic games rather than engage in serious negotiations, talks will not succeed.



Final status issues like borders must be dealt with up front, and there must be clear terms of reference. We do not want to talk for the sake of talking, or engage in a process that leads nowhere. Instead of wasting time and energy attempting to discredit Palestinian leaders who are committed to peaceful coexistence, the Israeli government should be thinking seriously about the consequences of another round of failed peace talks.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is an elected member of both the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council.