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Egypt's Lesson: Incitement is Not a Secondary Issue

June 25th 2012

PLO Flags

On May 31, Israel delivered 91 bodies to the Palestinian Authority. The PA gave them full military funerals, complete with coffins draped in Palestinian flags and a 21-gun salute. While PA President Mahmoud Abbas didn't speak, he laid wreaths on the coffins and presided over the ceremony. The secretary-general of his office, Tayeb Abd Al-Rahim, and the PA's state-appointed mufti, Muhammad Hussein, both gave eulogies, in which they declared that the souls of the dead were urging other Palestinians to "follow in their path."

It could have been any state ceremony for fallen heroes anywhere—except that many of the "heroes" whose path Palestinians were being urged to follow were vicious terrorists who collectively killed more than 100 Israeli civilians. But this blatant state-sponsored incitement elicited no protests from either Israel, the U.S., or the European Union.

Nor is this exceptional: The monitoring organization Palestinian Media Watch documents almost daily incidents in which PA officials, the PA-controlled media, or PA-funded organizations glorify anti-Israel terrorism, reject Israel's right to exist, or deny the Jews' historic connection to the Land of Israel. Yet even Israel rarely protests, while America and Europe almost never do. Nor have the U.S. and Europe ever conditioned the hundreds of millions of dollars a year they give the PA on curtailing such incitement. For decades, the accepted wisdom has been that what matters is preventing violence and promoting a two-state solution; as long as the PA remains officially committed to the both, why upset the applecart over secondary issues?

But if there's one thing developments in Egypt over the last year should have made clear, it's that incitement is anything but a secondary issue. For without a serious effort to end incitement and educate for peace, even a signed treaty may prove to be worth no more than the paper it's printed on.

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, anti-Israel incitement by both government officials and the state-controlled media was relentless. The Egyptian army, for instance, continued to deem Israel its principal enemy and devote most of its training to preparing to fight it. Egyptian state television broadcast a 41-part series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A government plan to translate Israeli literature into Arabic was lambasted by the media for furthering "cultural normalization," and the culture minister defended himself by declaring that the government opposes normalization, would work only with the authors' foreign publishers rather than their Israeli ones, and intended the project solely as a way to "know your enemy." An Egyptian governor suggested that the Mossad was behind deadly shark attacks on Sinai beaches. And the list could go on.

Yet neither Jerusalem nor Washington ever protested, because for both, the most important issue was keeping the Israeli-Egyptian border quiet. As long as Mubarak did that, neither wanted to pick a fight that might endanger this achievement.

At times, this blind-eye policy reached surreal levels, as in 2009, when Farouk Hosni sought to become UNESCO's director-general. Hosni, then Egypt's culture minister, had notoriously declared he would like to "burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries"—a wildly inappropriate sentiment from anyone seeking to head an "educational, scientific and cultural organization," but especially from a minister in a supposedly friendly government. Thus initially, Israel opposed his bid. Incredibly, however, it later withdrew its objections, at Mubarak's request. To preserve the "peace," Israel agreed to the candidacy of someone who had advocated burning Israeli books.

Today, however, it has become clear that ignoring such incitement undermined the peace rather than preserving it. Fully 92 percent of Egyptians now view Israel as an enemy, while 80 percent think "Palestinians' rights cannot be taken care of if Israel exists"—because that is what their government and its media mouthpieces taught them to think. Moreover, having been taught to see peace as something that benefited only the Israeli enemy rather than themselves, 61 percent now favor scrapping the treaty. And while public opinion didn't matter much under Mubarak, it matters greatly post-revolution: In response to it, virtually every party and presidential candidate in Egypt vowed to reconsider the treaty.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this is the widespread view that Egypt itself has nothing to gain by keeping the peace, and has done so only because Washington paid it protection money: As The New York Times reported in February, most Egyptians view the $1.55 billion in annual American aid as "a kind of payment for preserving the peace despite the popular resentment of Israel."

Egypt has indeed benefited less than Israel, since Mubarak didn't follow Israel's lead in using those decades of peace to invest in domestic prosperity. Yet Israelis have never deemed prosperity the primary benefit of peace; more important to them by far is all the Israeli lives it has saved. And from that perspective, Egypt was no less a beneficiary, since in every war they fought, Egypt's casualties vastly outnumbered Israel's: Its estimated fatalities (exact numbers don't exist) were six to 17 times higher than Israel's in 1956, 10 to 20 times higher in 1967, two to 20 times higher in the War of Attrition (1967–1970) and two to six times higher in 1973.

Thus if it has done nothing else, peace has assuredly saved tens of thousands of Egyptian lives. Yet this superlative achievement has been all but forgotten, drowned out by decades of anti-Israeli incitement. And the result is that public sentiment overwhelmingly favors throwing it away.

It's far too late to do anything about the situation in Egypt. Its newly elected leaders will have to accommodate the views of a virulently anti-Israel public, and changing those views will be a long, hard slog. But it's not too late to learn the lesson with regard to the Palestinians, and also to Jordan—another country where anti-Israel incitement is rampant despite a formal peace.

Far from being a secondary issue, it turns out that ending incitement is the sine qua non of a lasting peace. And if the Arab-Israeli peace process is to have any future, Israel, the U.S. and Europe must start treating it as such.

Evelyn Gordon is a visiting Fellow at JINSA, from where this article is adapted.


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