Shortly after the Clinton administration ended and George W. Bush took office, and amidst the ashes of the Oslo process, Dennis Ross, Clinton’s Middle East envoy, was asked at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy talk what in hindsight he would identify as the greatest U.S. mistake in the long process to broker Arab-Israel peace. He was correct to identify incitement.
Whether it was the tendency of Yasser Arafat to say one thing in English and the opposite in Arabic, or the constant barrage of hatred which Palestinian textbooks and media indoctrinate, the State Department turned a deaf ear. Incitement was seen as secondary to diplomatic progress and was a headache which, if dealt with, might hamper the ability to get to yes on whatever interim agreement loomed at the time.
Diplomats reached agreements but, in practice, they meant little. Rather than prepare Palestinians for compromise, the Palestinian Authority used incitement to fan the flames of hatred, and then used that public disapproval of any peace as an excuse to avoid the difficult steps necessary.
It is not only the Palestinians who have been guilty of incitement. For many diplomats, the 1978 Camp David Accords suggest that perseverance against all odds can lead to peace. And, with Egypt-Israel peace now in doubt, some Israeli officials and scholars long for a return to Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Mubarak, however, bears much culpability for the current actions of the Egyptian public. As president, he oversaw a regime which used its state media to perpetuate anti-Semitism and crass conspiracies, and used its bureaucracy to quash any attempts by civil society to promote tolerance and interchange. The hatred which populists now channel against Israel is the result of more than three decades of unchecked incitement.
Alas, having turned a blind eye to incitement for so long, Americans will now feel its bite. After squandering the opportunity for four decades to reform, professionalize, and free the Egyptian media, Egypt’s new government now uses its media to incite against the United States and, specifically, the Americans the transitional Egyptian regime holds hostage.
Years of neglect suggest there will be no happy ending to the current crisis which increasingly appears as a repeat of the Iran hostage drama, but in slow motion. Perhaps it’s time for the State Department and Congress to have a fundamental rethink about the priority incitement has in its calculations. Should any country use public media to promote religious hatred or anti-Americanism, that country is not serious about peace nor is it deserving of American aid. Rather than treat incitement as a hiccup to ignore on the road to an agreement, perhaps it is time to address incitement as the primary hurdle which must be overcome before any aid can be expended or serious peacemaking can begin.