The Power and Weakness of Inciting Violence

The horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue last month has generated heated discussion about the causes of violence. The latest villain — an old one, really — is inflammatory Palestinian rhetoric. But it’s the wrong explanation for a much deeper problem. Incitement can make matters worse, but it is rarely a primary cause of violence and often is its outcome.

We have been here before. From 1998 to 2000, I served on the American side of the Trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee, which came out of the Wye River agreements. Benjamin Netanyahu was in his first stint as Israeli prime minister and, having opposed the Oslo agreements, he had been pressured into the talks by President Bill Clinton. Netanyahu stressed Palestinian “incitement” as the cause of the failure of peace negotiations, and the committee was established to appease him.

From the outset, Israelis and Palestinians could not agree how to define incitement. Israelis would present, for instance, a statement by a Muslim religious figure against Israel, and Palestinians would respond by citing settlement construction or episodes of Palestinian humiliation. And so it went — with each side downplaying the examples of the other or simply rejecting them.

This debate about what was worse — Israel using its dominant power to alter Palestinian lives or troubling Palestinian rhetoric — was never settled, and indeed it could not be settled without a real prospect for peace. In the end, little progress emerged.

Incitement is sometimes employed by those seeking to prevent reconciliation, to be sure, but its resonance in society is broader. This is especially true when there’s pervasive pessimism about the prospects for peace and people are preparing themselves emotionally for conflict — something that is made easier when the enemy is demonized.

We see this among both Israelis and Arabs. Research I conducted for my book “The World Through Arab Eyes” showed that majorities of each side initially reacted to the other’s civilian casualties not with empathy but a sense that the other side “brought it upon itself.” This is not purely a function of hate: Most Palestinians rejected terrorism against Israelis in the 1990s when there was genuine hope for peace, while the overwhelming majority of Israelis rejected expelling Palestinians from their homes. Attitudes changed after negotiations collapsed.

Fighting provocation and incitement in conflicts is difficult because they often serve strategic aims. Just as empathy with the enemy is discouraged because it might diminish the will to fight, so a weaker party will often use incitement to muster the will to sustain the fight. By contrast, provocation is often the tool of the stronger party, as it pushes for an earlier fight while it has the upper hand.

My research shows that countering incitement with information that might humanize the other side often gets the opposite result. When Arabs hear stories of the Holocaust, or Israelis confront reports of historical Palestinian suffering, their reactions are similar: They resent the accounts as instruments intended to elicit sympathy or weaken their will.

Both Arab and Israeli leaders have been guilty of incitement and provocation, but the degree to which their words have effect is itself debatable. After almost five decades of occupation, Palestinians are no closer to freedom, and Israelis are no closer to peace; most have given up hope on the very possibility of two states. This reality is far more powerful than the utterances of any individual.

In the face of angry public sentiments, leaders’ words have limited impact. Jordan’s government, for example, condemned the synagogue attack. But Jordan’s parliament, mindful more of public rage than King Abdullah’s desires, moved to honor the killers.

Highlighting incitement is partly a political decision. After Ehud Barak replaced Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999, the full Anti-Incitement Committee never met again. Barak, who aimed for a comprehensive political deal, didn’t take the issue seriously. Had the negotiations succeeded in shaping a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace, some incitement would probably still occur, but few would pay attention. Conversely, the collapse of negotiations in 2000 and the advent of more violence would have negated any anti-incitement deal. As it was, even the limited steps on media and education that seemed acceptable to both sides were forgotten as soon as casualties started to mount.

So it will be with the current state of affairs. If an agreement appealing to majorities on both sides is reached, incitement will be widely ignored. If the efforts fail, no media or public relations efforts will stop mounting provocation and incitement campaigns — or the violence that will erupt with or without these campaigns.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Post.