Did Anyone Hear ‘Jihad’?

The problem is not a new one: Palestinian leaders purport to seek peace with Israel but their actions suggest otherwise.

The question is how to respond, as when Yasir Arafat speaks in moderate tones to Western officials and reporters and then calls for jihad, or holy war, when addressing Arab audiences.

In the first several years after the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and Israelis, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres tended to either not respond or to dismiss the Palestinian leader’s rhetoric as simply that – words – while insisting that he be judged on his actions. The trouble was, Arafat’s actions were often deeply problematic. The Palestinian Authority flagrantly violated key aspects of the accords – giving terrorists safe haven, exceeding the limit of the Palestinian police force and failing to curb anti-Israel propaganda on television and in schools. But the Israeli government was so intent on moving negotiations along that it looked the other way, until a series of terrorist attacks wrecked the momentum.

For the next three years, Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the need for reciprocity, pointing out numerous and flagrant Palestinian violations of the agreement with Israel. These were cited as the basis for Jerusalem’s unwillingness to carry out some of its Oslo pledges. Neither approach was effective. Ignoring Arafat’s words and actions only emboldened him, and coming down hard on him spoiled Israel’s relations with the U.S. as well as the Arab world.

Last week, with a new Israeli prime minister in place operating on overdrive in trying to improve the negotiating climate, Arafat celebrated his 70th birthday by calling for jihad against the state and people of Israel, and praising “the children of the stones,” the instigators of the deadly intifada. So much for extending the olive branch.

But there are indications that despite Ehud Barak’s goal of concluding a peace deal with the Palestinians, he is not willing to tolerate such behavior. A senior Israeli army official held a briefing with the press in Israel the other day and criticized Arafat’s behavior. (Washington had no comment on the latest Arafat flare-up, after cautioning him repeatedly against such volatile talk.) Further, the Israeli official, who did not speak for attribution, accused the Palestinians of providing safe haven for terrorists and doing little to prevent further attacks or to confiscate weapons. David Bedein, a media researcher in Israel, noted that it was the first time in the last six years that a high-ranking Israeli army official convened a press conference to put the Palestinians on call in this manner, accusing them of “planting the seeds of war.”

The impression is that Barak seems to be holding firm on security issues while seeking to advance the peace process. It’s a delicate balance, one that has not worked until now.

On Tuesday, in wake of a Palestinian youth’s would-be suicide mission – he was shot dead after trying to run over a group of Israeli soldiers – Barak did not accuse the Palestinian Authority of duplicity, or lax security. Instead, he said the incident strengthened Israel’s resolve to cooperate with Palestinian security officials to prevent terrorism. Whether Barak can walk the fine line of insisting on reciprocity while going forward on negotiations remains to be seen, but it is clear that this issue is of critical importance to the future of the peace process.