Statement condemned as 'incitement to genocide'

JERUSALEM — The spiritual head of a religious party in Israel's ruling coalition has damned Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and his people ahead of the Washington summit, stirring an angry reaction on Sunday.

"May all the nasty people who hate Israel, like Abu Mazen (Abbas), vanish from our world," said Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, in his weekly sermon on Saturday night.

"May God strike them down with the plague along with all the nasty Palestinians who persecute Israel," he said, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas meet in Washington to resume direct peace talks.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned the remarks as "an incitement to genocide," and urged the Israeli government "to do more about peace and stop spreading hatred."

"The spiritual leader of Shas is literally calling for a genocide against Palestinians, and there seems to be no response from the Israeli government," he said in a statement.

"He is particularly calling for the assassination of President Abbas who within a few days will be sitting face to face with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is this how the Israeli government prepares its public for a peace agreement?"

In the run-up to the Wednesday-Thursday summit in Washington, Erakat called on the international community "to condemn incitement to genocide by public figures in Israel."

Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib pointed out that Shas was not some fringe opposition group but a partner in Netanyahu's center-right coalition government.

"This is racist incitement of a spiritual leader of a coalition member party," Khatib said in a statement. "These hateful remarks cannot be dismissed as politically insignificant."

According to Shas MP Nissim Zeev, whose party has 11 seats in the 120-member parliament, Yosef was trying to express the wish taken from Jewish holy texts that God would eliminate the enemies of Israel to clear the way for peace.

In the past, Shas' powerful mentor, a Baghdad-born rabbi now in his late 80s, has referred to Arabs and Palestinians as "snakes" and "vipers" who were "swarming like ants."

He has made similar remarks about non-observant Jews, including former prime minister Ariel Sharon, whom he called "cruel" and "evil" for his plan to evict settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

In the late 1980s, however, Yosef came out in support of a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.