from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Reacting to Terror: Words Matter

November 18, 2014

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The horrifying terror attack on Jerusalem synagogue, where four rabbis were murdered during morning prayers, has elicited widespread condemnation. And yet....

The words that are used to condemn terror matter. Let us compare those of the President of the Palestinian Authority, the President of the United States, and the United States Secretary of State.

Mahmoud Abbas could not bring himself to condemn this horrific attack.

The Palestinian news agency WAFA instead issued this statement:

The Presidency condemned the killing of civilians regardless of the party committing the attacks, stressing the need to end the causes of such attacks and current tension through ending the Israeli occupation.

It also condemned the killing of Israeli civilians in the West Jerusalem synagogue attack and called for the immediate cessation of the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex by extremist Jewish settler groups as well as an end to provocations of settlers and incitement of some Israeli ministers.

This is a vile and cowardly response. "The Presidency" condemned the attack? Is that a building, an office, a microphone? Where is Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president? His refusal to speak in his own voice, to appear on camera doing so, to tell Palestinians that such acts bring shame and repudiation on all of them, speaks far more loudly than the press statement that was issued. In the aftermath of this act of heartless brutality, Abbas simply hid.

The White House issued this statement from the President:

I strongly condemn today’s terrorist attack on worshipers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which killed four innocent people, including U.S. citizens Aryeh Kupinsky, Cary William Levine, and Mosheh Twersky, and injured several more. There is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians. The thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the victims and families of all those who were killed and injured in this horrific attack and in other recent violence. At this sensitive moment in Jerusalem, it is all the more important for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens to work cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence, and seek a path forward towards peace.

Here again the speaker just issued a statement and did not appear on camera. And what a statement! Complete equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, as if they were in both cases democratically elected representatives of the people, and as if they had similar positions when it came to terror. But in fact, Palestinian official media have been inciting violence and anti-Semitism ceaselessly in recent months. "Palestinian leaders" are part of the problem, and Mr. Obama seems unable or unwilling to admit that fact.

Contrast what John Kerry said, during a press conference with the British foreign secretary:

I am, first of all, delighted to be in London with my friend Philip Hammond. I think the fact that we are meeting on a regular basis now, almost weekly since he has become the foreign secretary, is an indicator of the importance of our relationship and the degree to which we rely on each other as we face some very, very complicated and challenging issues.

But I want to say something first, if I may. The reason I was delayed walking in here: I was just on the phone to Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. This morning, today in Jerusalem, Palestinians attacked Jews who were praying in a synagogue. And people who had come to worship God in the sanctuary of a synagogue were hatcheted and hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terror and senseless brutality and murder.

I call on the Palestinian leadership at every single level to condemn this in the most powerful terms. This violence has no place anywhere, and particularly after a discussion that we had just the other day in Amman, where the prime minister of Israel flew to Amman, sat down with the Custodian of the al-Aqsa Mosque, King Abdullah of Jordan, and went to the extent of restoring in absolute terms the status quo with respect to the management of that mount, including lowering the age, taking away any age limits on people who could visit, guaranteeing that there were peaceful, completely uninterrupted visits over the weekend. And to have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement of calls for days of rage, of just an irresponsibility, is unacceptable.

So the Palestinian leadership must condemn this and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path. Our hearts go out to all Israelis for the atrocity of this event and for all the reminders of history that come with it. This is – simply has no place in human behavior, and we need to hear from leaders who are going to lead – lead their people to a different place.

This was, first of all, the voice of a human being, not a press bureau. And on camera, live. And Kerry did not seek a false moral equivalence, but instead made some demands of the Palestinians. He noted that the terrorism was the "pure result of incitement of calls for days of rage" and he told us where it came from. He then added that "the Palestinian leadership must condemn this and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path." He made it clear that this is not just the fault of Hamas or other groups and called "the Palestinian leadership" to task for "their language." And he demanded not more press statements but "serious steps" to get the incitement stopped.

Bravo for Kerry. It’s too bad President Obama could not have reacted in a similarly way--both very human and quite tough. And it is of course scandalous, though unsurprising, that Abbas said nothing useful at all.

Does it matter? Are these just word games? I think not. How we react to such acts of terror tells a great deal about who we are and what we think of the terrorism. Abbas’s reaction will surely persuade many more Israelis that he is no partner for peace.

 

UPDATE: After I write the comments above, President Abbas did appear on camera to condemn the murders. But he added in the same sentence that while he condemned the slaughter "we also condemn the attacks on al-Aqsa mosque." That made his statements and omissions even worse, for there have been no such attacks. A handful of Jews tried to pray on the Temple Mount, and suggesting moral equivalence between that action and the murders in a synagogue is grotesque. His words would suggest to Palestinians that crimes of equal magnitude are being committed regarding al-Aqsa, and that can only incite more violence.

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