Reviving Trilateral Commission on Incitement Could Help Situation

 Buried in a resolution unanimously adopted by the US House of Representatives this week that broadly condemned Palestinian incitement against Israel was a clause calling on the Palestinians to revive a Trilateral Commission on Incitement which has been moribund for the past 15 years.

The call to reconstitute the Commission is a useful suggestion that both sides should seriously weigh. In a modified form, such a Commission could help to calm the current crisis and get the parties talking again in a more constructive manner.

First some background: the Trilateral Commission on Incitement was formed as part of the Wye Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in October 1998 when Israel’s Prime Minister was Benjamin Netanyahu.

As a 2013 article by Elhanan Miller made clear, the Commission was bedeviled by political one-upmanship and did not make much headway. The committee met every two months from the end of 1998 until September 2000, when it lapsed after the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Each side was represented by a media specialist, a law enforcement representative, an educational specialist and an elected official. Their one achievement was an agreement to set up a hotline through which each side could report cases of perceived incitement in real time to the other.

One problem was the choice of delegation heads on both sides. According to Boaz Ganor, who headed the subcommittee on textbooks, the committee was doomed from the start due to the “extremist” personalities of Israeli team head Uri Dan and Palestinian team head Marwan Kanafani.

If it did not succeed then, why should such a Commission succeed now when mutual trust between the parties is close to zero? One reason is that there are still many people of goodwill on both sides. Another is that the situation has become so desperate and so dangerous that there is a strong motivation on both sides to prevent a total meltdown. However, we should recognize that to have any real chance of success, the Commission would probably need to be taken out of the political realm and placed into the hands of academics and experts.

A committee of respected experts on both sides who have no political axes to grind bolstered by solid US representation could forge a much-needed consensus on the need for both Palestinians and Israelis to speak and act responsibly – and it could call them to account when they fail to do so.

Under Netanyahu, the prevalence of Palestinian incitement has become a major public relations tool for Israel. The Prime Minister never misses an opportunity to accuse President Mahmoud Abbas. His government devotes enormous efforts to cataloging every instance of incitement and publishes a quarterly report.

Israel’s contention that the Palestinians are constantly spewing out hatred and anti-Semitism has become a tool to delegitimize them as a partner for peace, mobilize Israeli opinion behind the government and deflect attention from Netanyahu’s policies of undermining the two-state solution by continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Of course, Palestinian incitement is real, it is often vicious and disgusting in its use of repugnant anti-Semitic and Nazi tropes. At the same time, the Palestinians have repeatedly indicated a willingness to revive the Trilateral Commission – a proposal ignored by Netanyahu. In a 2013 meeting with Israeli parliamentarians, Abbas acknowledged that incitement still permeates Palestinian media and called for the Commission to be reactivated.

The real reason that Israel is so reluctant probably lies in the fact that if the Commission were revived, it would necessarily address not only Palestinian but also Israeli incitement, undermining Netanyahu’s contention that all the guilt lies on the other side and Israel is blameless.

Of course, it is not. When Netanyahu falsely blames the Final Solution on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, that is incitement. When Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and other Knesset members call for the construction of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount, that too is incitement.

Incitement is present when Jewish mobs vent their anger at terrorist attacks by chanting “Death to Arabs.” It is present in Price Tag attacks on Palestinian property and religious sites and in the racist chants of the supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team; it is present when state-funded Rabbis call for the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank and in the still unsolved murders of a Palestinian family, burned to death in the village of Douma last July.

So there is a lot to talk about on both sides. Reviving the Commission could be a valuable step to defuse current tensions. But only if the parties engage honestly with goodwill and a determination to tackle the problem rather than simply casting blame.