Binyamin Netanyahu has met with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in Berlin amid a continuing storm of criticism over remarks by the Israeli prime minister claiming that the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem had suggested the genocide of the Jews to Adolf Hitler.
Although Netanyahu tried to row back on his remarks that Hitler had been persuaded to initiate the Holocaust by the second world war Palestinian leader – made in a speech on Tuesday to the World Zionist Congress – historians and media commentators continued to weigh in accusing him of everything from fabrication to helping the cause of Holocaust deniers.
The continuing row came as Kerry and Netanyahu called for an immediate end to incitement, blamed for a recent deadly wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis , ahead of their meeting on Thursday.
Netanyahu also repeated earlier accusations that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was “spreading lies” about the status of the holy site at the centre of tensions .
In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu described an alleged meeting between Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler in November 1941.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” said Netanyahu. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”
In reality al-Husseini did not meet Hitler until 28 November 1941, months after mass killings of Jews had already begun in Lithuania and at Babi Yar , a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev. Israeli historians also pointed out that the remarks quoted by Netanyahu do not appear in the record of the meeting with Hitler.
The caption on a cartoon by Guy Morad in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth summed up the continuing criticism being levelled at Netanyahu.
In it Netanyahu, dressed as a schoolboy, is depicted heading for school as his father – the famous Israeli historian Benzion Netanyahu – asks if he has done his homework. “I didn’t need to, Dad,” he answers. “I know the material.”
However, the focus has not only been on Netanyahu’s presumed intellectual arrogance. He was criticised for his timing in making the remarks ahead of his visit to Germany to meet the chancellor, Angela Merkel, who herself publicly reiterated German responsibility for the Holocaust in a joint press conference .
For other columnists it was an opening to remind readers of Netanyahu’s habit of making explicit and controversial statements and then insisting he had not meant what he had said.
Most damning of the commentators was Moshe Zimmerman, director of the Minerva centre for German history at Hebrew University. He accused Netanyahu, in his “desire to slander the Palestinians”, of having managed “to relatively whitewash Nazi Germany”, while providing fuel for the far right and Holocaust deniers.
“Holocaust deniers will eagerly pounce on Netanyahu’s statement. The stain to the mufti’s reputation [a reference to this anti-semitism and support for the Nazis] does not really make a difference to them,” Zimmerman said.
“What is important to them is that the prime minister of the Jewish state thinks that the annihilation of the Jews had not yet begun in November 1941 and that the initiative for annihilation did not come from Hitler and Germany, but rather from outside.
“And Netanyahu will have a very hard time fixing what he broke no matter how much he says that it was not his intent. His statement will be quoted again and again in all the extreme rightwing websites in Europe and America.”
Questions too continued to bubble over where exactly Netanyahu found the alleged quote. Asked by Haaretz whether Netanyahu had fabricated the dialogue, Dina Porat, chief historian at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre, said: “He grew up in a home full of Jewish history. But what he said is not in the minutes of the meeting. That should be clear.”
Perhaps more surprising was the level of condemnation in an article by the Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger published in Yedioth Ahronoth, usually a strong supporter of Netanyahu.
Under the headline “a blatant historical lie” , Klieger wrote: “The mistake made by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday was both diabolical and blatant and ridiculous … I don’t understand what got into Netanyahu when he voiced such nonsense on the eve of his trip to Germany.
“What exactly was he trying to achieve? To prove to the Germans that the Arabs had always wanted to destroy the Jews, even before there was an occupation? Are there any intellectuals or politicians in Germany today who are not aware of that and of the fact that there is a wave of terror taking place against Jews these days? Is that why he has to make up historical lies? That’s strange, very strange.”
Ben Caspit writing in Ma’ariv, a frequent critic of Netanyahu’s political style, saw not a “slip” but a pattern of behaviour.
Caspit reminded readers of other recent statements: “He managed to say within one week, in two different forums, that he was the prime minister who had built the most in the territories and that he was the prime minister who had built the least in the territories – once in Hebrew to the Likud party and another time in English to the representatives of the World Zionist Congress.
“But, this time it was no slip of the tongue. … Netanyahu writes his speeches himself. He is a speech freak. As far as he is concerned, speeches are an historic act, they go down in history, they decide history, they mark territory. He lives from speech to speech.”
Unmentioned in most Hebrew media, however, was the practical effect that the incident was likely to have on his meeting with Kerry.
A senior official travelling with Kerry said the secretary would use the talks in Germany on Thursday to try to change the tone of the public discourse between Israel and the Palestinians and clarify the status of the Temple Mount, the holy site in Jerusalem at the centre of the tensions.
Both Netanyahu and senior officials say the violence in recent weeks is the result of Palestinian incitement alone – not settlement building or the occupation – an argument that Israeli prime minister appears to have seriously damaged with his own appeal to incendiary rhetoric.
While refusing to directly criticise Netanyahu for his remarks, Kerry’s spokesman, John Kirby, said: “The scholarly evidence does not support [Netanyahu’s] comments.”
Speaking ahead of his meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu said: “There is no question this wave of attacks is driven directly by incitement, incitement by Hamas, incitement from the Islamist movement in Israel and incitement, I am sorry to say, from President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.”
Kerry was more circumspect and did not single out Abbas for blame. But he also did not address the Israeli prime minister’s Holocaust comments, saying only: “We have to stop the incitement, we have to stop the violence.”
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