In an October 20 speech to the World Zionist Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the “Mufti of Jerusalem,” Haj Amin al-Husseini, gave Adolf Hitler the idea to exterminate Jews during WWII. Netanyahu has come under fierce criticism from politicians and historians for the statement. (YouTube/IsraeliPM)
Former deputy editorial page fditor

Benjamin Netanyahu may have been refuted and ridiculed when he claimed that Adolf Hitler had to be talked into the Holocaust by a Palestinian cleric, but he’s had much better luck selling a broader narrative behind that claim. The latest wave of Palestinian violence, his argument goes, has nothing to so with the failure of peace talks, Israeli settlement building or even the state itself: It’s about in­trac­table and murderous Palestinian intolerance of any Jewish presence in historic Palestine.

Netanyahu’s real point about Haj Amin al-Husseini, the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem, was that he incited the killing of Jews by alleging that the Old City’s al-Aqsa Mosque was threatened — and that the same false claim, delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nearly a century later, preceded the recent rash of stabbings in Jerusalem. “The core of the conflict,” Netanyahu charged in a speech to the Zionist Congress, was and remains “the desire to destroy the Jews anywhere, without a state and with a state.”

That idea has been surprisingly resonant, including among commentators who don’t always agree with Netanyahu. “The perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here,” wrote Israeli journalist David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel. “The violence of the past two weeks,” wrote Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, “is rooted not in Israeli settlement policy, but in a worldview that dismisses the national and religious rights of Jews.”

The problem with the theory is that, when it comes to the 300,000 Palestinians who live in Jerusalem today, it’s largely untrue. We know this thanks to painstaking research this past summer by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who oversaw a survey of Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem by a respected Palestinian pollster.

Pollock found that, whatever they may have believed in al-Husseini’s era, modern-day Palestinians broadly accept Israel. In Jerusalem, “a stunning 70 percent,” he reports, “say they would accept the formula of ‘two states for two peoples.’ ” A big majority, 62 percent, say they think Israel will still exist in 30 or 40 years. Perhaps most remarkably, 52 percent say they would prefer to be citizens of Israel rather than live in a Palestinian state.

Jerusalem Palestinians are different: Their neighborhoods and villages were incorporated into the city and annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, meaning they enjoy welfare benefits and labor rights denied to residents of the West Bank. They live on Israel’s side of the borderlike barrier Israel constructed through the territory a decade ago. More than 40,000 cross into West Jerusalem or other parts of pre-1967 Israel every day to work.

Palestinian opinion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is less temperate — but in the West Bank a majority is still ready to accept a two-state solution, with no right of return for Palestinians to Israel. Many still hope to destroy Israel in the long run, and Pollock says that even in Jerusalem, 55 percent say that they still wish to someday “liberate all of historic Palestine,” though not necessarily by killing or expelling Jews. But the reality is that, in the here and now, Palestinians are not the implacable ideologues described by Netanyahu; in fact, most are open to the solution the Israeli leader says he supports.

So why the latest rash of attacks? The causes, says Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, are more prosaic: the rising tensions across the Middle East; assaults by Israeli settlers on Palestinians; statements by Israeli politicians calling for a change in the status quo for the elevated compound around the al-Aqsa Mosque. “It would be a mistake to view the recent wave of terrorism as the successful result of well-spun [Palestinian] incitement,” Amidror wrote in an analysis posted by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The trouble is less Abbas’s rants, which have been mixed with condemnations of violence, than the absence of any consequential Palestinian leadership. Having rejected a U.S. framework for peace talks and failed in repeated efforts to pass resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, the 80-year-old Abbas has lapsed into near-total passivity. The only alternative is Hamas, which most Palestinians reject.

Israel has contributed to the trouble by preventing the rise of Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem, even though they would likely echo the moderate views of city residents. Now, in response to the violence, the Netanyahu government is constructing barriers dividing Arab from Jewish neighborhoods, which have the effect of punishing those Palestinians who just a few months ago were saying they’d be content to become Israeli citizens. Incitement, indeed.

Read more from Jackson Diehl’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.