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Bibi's Holocaust comments muddle congressional case against Palestinian 'incitement'

Prime Minister Netanyahu accidentally undermines US lawmakers' singular focus on Abbas.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem October 8, 2015. Four people, including an Israeli soldier, were stabbed and wounded near a military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Thursday, police and ambulance sources said, as a rash of such Palestinian attacks spread to Israel's commercial capital. The assailant was shot and killed by another soldier as he fled, a police spokeswoman said. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RTS3M2L

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion that a Palestinian mufti was responsible for the Holocaust risks undermining congressional efforts to lay the blame for the current violence squarely at the feet of the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader's comment Oct. 20 before the World Zionist Congress that Adolf Hitler only wanted to expel the Jews of Europe before Haj Amin al-Husseini urged him to "burn them" provoked outrage across the political spectrum in Israel. It also complicates efforts by Israel's allies in the United States to place the blame for incitement solely on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 

"I think it does further erode an already damaged credibility for Bibi Netanyahu," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The panel is scheduled to vote Oct. 22 on a resolution denouncing "incitement within the Palestinian Authority" following a hearing on the same topic.

Netanyahu's comment "certainly adds another dimension that needs to be considered as we consider the resolution," said Connolly. "I don't know that it takes away from the point that violence against civilians simply because of their ethnicity or the religion — there's no excuse for that."

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., grimaced when asked about Netanyahu's comments.

"I don't think we should trivialize [the Holocaust] by comparing it to everything — I just think it is a poor thing," Engel told Al-Monitor. "I don't want to get side-tracked. ... The issue right now is Palestinian incitement, innocents being stabbed and knifed and run over — it's terrorism. That's what we still need to focus on."

Indeed, there is little reason to believe that Netanyahu's comments will prevent the adoption of the resolution from Middle East subpanel Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and ranking member Ted Deutch, D-Fla. The effort has the strong support of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which is also gathering support for a letter to Abbas by Engel and panel chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., warning Abbas to stop asserting that the Israeli government seeks greater access for Jews at the disputed Temple Mount.

"Statements made by you, other political figures, clerics and official PA media have undoubtedly served to inflame the current situation," the letter states. "False claims about changing the status quo on the Temple Mount or accusations of Israel executing an attacker — when, in fact, he is being treated in an Israeli hospital — only encourage more acts of terror. The abhorrent and deadly rhetoric — including calls for knife attacks on Israelis — must stop."

And the chairwoman as well as the top Democrat on the House foreign aid spending panel wrote a letter to Abbas hours after Netanyahu made his comments making the same points. Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., go on to write that the $400 million in annual US assistance to the PA will be "severely jeopardized" if Abbas refuses direct negotiations.

"We implore you to refrain from highly-inflammatory language and to redouble your efforts to uphold nonviolence," they wrote. "As you are well aware, any US assistance ... is predicated on the PA's adherence to the precepts of the Oslo accords as well as countering terrorism and the incitement of violence."

The resolution itself does single out Palestinian and Israeli people and groups that have continued to work together to promote peace. These include professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, United Hatzalah and Breaking the Impasse.

Still, the tone and timing of Netanyahu's remarks play directly into the hands of the Palestinians, who have long accused Congress of turning a blind eye to incitement by some Israeli officials. They blame the absence of a Palestinian state and the collapse of peace talks for the violence.

"Netanyahu hates Palestinians so much that he is willing to absolve Hitler of the murder of 6 million Jews,” Palestinian Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said in a statement. “[He] should stop using this human tragedy to score points for his political end."

The PLO's ambassador to Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, said Netanyahu's comments all but ensure that the congressional resolution will be widely ignored if it only addresses Palestinian "incitement."

“None of these members of Congress has the courage to say, 'You know what, we're going to hold them also liable for these kinds of incitements,'” Areikat told Al-Monitor. "Basically, we care less about what Congress does. We've reached a point where we are not even factoring them in in any political equation as Palestinians. They can say whatever they want to say; it's not going to have any impact on what is going on in the region."

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