Changing the Climate of Hatred

Over the weekend Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to New York seeking stronger American Jewish support for the accelerating Mideast peace process, and by and large he will get it.

But two recent incidents point to the obstacles he faces in settling the lingering qualms of a significant proportion of the Jews who care about Israel’s future in a changing region — qualms that could eventually undercut the support he desires.

Suha Arafat’s claim that Israel is using toxic gas in the West Bank points to a continuing level of animus among Palestinian leaders that is not consistent with the peace process now underway. And charges in the Egyptian press about the recent EgyptAir tragedy suggest that treaties alone are not enough to end the paranoia and hatred that has driven Israel’s adversaries over the years.

During his visit to New York, Barak called for a moratorium on incendiary rhetoric.

“Peace making must be a two-way street,” he told leaders of the Israel Policy Forum on Saturday. “Each side must take into consideration the concerns and sensitivities of the other.”

American Jews understand that message, but apparently Palestinian leaders do not. Unless they begin to change the culture of rejection, the seeds of doubt among American Jews — and the ability of groups that reject any peace process to exploit that doubt — will grow.

The media frenzy triggered by the Suha Arafat incident focused on First Lady Hillary Clinton’s delay in responding to Ms. Arafat’s libelous charge.

But the more important story was that Ms. Arafat — the educated, intelligent wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — was echoing views that are as common among the Palestinian leadership as they are on the mean streets of Gaza and Ramallah.

Even those leaders who seem sincere in their desire to make peace with Israel have not challenged the anti-Israel rhetoric of their comrades, or done anything to root out the anti-Jewish content that pervades their educational system and their media.

Ms. Arafat’s comments are hardly an aberration; they demonstrate how far behind the Palestinians are lagging in the effort to fundamentally change the culture of the Middle East.

The controversy over EgyptAir Flight 990 speaks to how that problem can play out over the long term.

Last week, the bumbling National Transportation Safety Board leaked information about the contents of the doomed flight’s cockpit voice reporter supporting the theory that the crash may have been caused by a suicidal co-pilot.

Later, NTSB officials backed away from their initial assessment after strong pressure from the Egyptians.

The jury is still out on the question of whether that pressure had any merit; the NTSB’s performance after other air disasters does not inspire confidence.

But what was incontestable was the outrageousness of the charges that surfaced in Egypt’s less-than-free press.

Some commentators blamed Israel for the anti-Egyptian “slur.” Others said the NTSB investigation was part of a government conspiracy designed to protect the American manufacturer of the aircraft.

Many even blamed Israel for the crash itself, prompting an indignant response from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. The government of President Hosni Mubarak did nothing to counter the anti-Israel rumors.

Israel has officially been at peace with Egypt for two decades, but that peace has not resulted in a fundamental change in attitudes among rank-and-file Egyptians or their leaders.

There are disturbing indications that the same process could be at work in Jordan, where anti-Israel conspiracy theories have proliferated since the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement.

None of this proves that Barak’s current peace drive is flawed.

Like the late Yitzhak Rabin, he believes an expanding web of treaties and economic relations can create a climate in which attitudes will then start to change, however slowly.

But that vision does little to quell the uneasiness many American Jews feel each time they read about anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks, or hear another libelous claim by a Palestinian official.

Barak wants continued American Jewish backing for his efforts. To keep it, he needs to address himself directly to this question: why is the current peace process in Israel’s interests DESPITE what seems like a wall of hostility that even successful treaties do not seem to breach?

He has not adequately explained to Israel’s supporters how it can all work when his Palestinian partners tolerate and even foster a climate of continuing hatred.

There may be good answers, but Barak has yet to convey them to American Jews who WANT to believe what he is doing will bring Israel lasting peace and security — but whose belief is challenged every day by the likes of Suha Arafat.

It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that both Barak and President Bill Clinton have not made it clear enough to Arafat that his failure to exercise leadership in undoing the pervasive culture of hatred — admittedly, a process that could take generations to finish — will undercut the negotiations at precisely the time when Israel’s people are being asked to take the biggest risks for peace.