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Bibi's Hitler comments are a useful distraction from present-day problems

Netanyahu's latest controversy covers up his lack of answers to escalating violence

Binyamin Netanyahu is a fine orator who has never been shy of using a gimmick during his public speeches. This is a man brave enough to risk a million social media memes in his defence of the Jewish people.

One classic was his September 2012 address to the United Nations general assembly, when he drew a red line on a Wile E. Coyote-style bomb graphic to illustrate Iran’s looming nuclear threshold.

This year’s UN speech saw him exemplify the international community’s silence in the face of Iranian perfidy with just that: 45 wordless seconds spent staring accusingly around the conference hall.

Has he gone one shtick too far with his comments about how the wartime Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was actually the driving force behind Adolf Hitler’s genocidal plans?

Haj Amin al-Husseini, he told the annual meeting of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, “was later sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the final solution,” Netanyahu said. “He flew to Berlin. Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they'll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them’.”

There is nothing new about the premise of the story that the fledgling Palestinian national movement contributed to the Holocaust. It’s the perfect answer to the Palestinian trope that they had nothing to do with the Holocaust yet are now being made to pay for European sins.

It’s true that the Arabs strenuously tried to prevent Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. Al-Husseini was indeed an enthusiastic fan of Nazism, making propaganda broadcasts for them throughout the war. There’s a famous photo of him in 1941, meeting Hitler.

Netanyahu’s innovation, based on historical evidence so sketchy that Israel’s leading Holocaust historians lined up to dismiss it, was only a little more ambitious.

His intent was crude, but clear, just like Israel’s explanation for this current outbreak of violence. It’s all down the Palestinian’s pathological hatred of Jews, runs the argument, and thus the Grand Mufti’s perfidy shows it lies in the very DNA of their national movement.

Netanyahu drew a direct line between al-Husseini warnings of a Jewish threat to the Temple Mount in the 1920s and similar Palestinian accusations today. Incitement, pure and simple, and attempting to provide any context is no more than apologetics.

Netanyahu then employed a signature tactic by quickly clarifying his statement and expressing very mild contrition.

“My aim was not to absolve Hitler from the responsibility he bears, but to show that the father of the Palestinian nation at the time, without a state and before the ‘occupation,’ without the territories and with the settlements, even then aspired with systemic incitement for the destruction of the Jews,” Netanyahu said, before embarking on what must have been a more awkward-than-usual state visit to Berlin.

This Bibi classic was employed to great effect in his election campaign when he warned voters that “hordes of Arabs” were heading to the polls and when he made it clear that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, ever. All followed by a retraction, but the point had been made.

But Netanyahu has never suffered for displaying an excess of chutzpah. His unique selling point is his image as the only Israeli figure capable of standing up to the international community (one election clip began with him apparently on the phone to the White House, saying sternly, “Mr President, Israel is acting to defend its security.”)

Except, this wasn’t a major international speech. Conspiracy theorists may be disappointed to learn that world domination is not on the agenda at the World Zionist Congress get-together, an annual purgatory of lukewarm coffee, stale croissants and mindless diaspora bureaucracy.

If not for Netanyahu’s Mufti comments, the vast majority of Israelis would still have no idea that such an anachronistic organisation even exists, let alone that it was meeting in the country’s capital.

Netanyahu didn’t misspeak. He may have gone a little too far, employed a little too much flamboyance. But for his constituency, it was a good point if clumsily made. And it provided a wonderful distraction.

The Israeli opposition, such as it is, had a field day and the Israeli media was quite scathing (Israel Hayom, the daily freesheet funded by tycoon Sheldon Adelson which exists to keep Netanyahu in power, more or less ignored it).

But newspaper columnists are now arguing about just to what extent the Palestinians were responsible for the Holocaust, not the fact that Netanyahu has zero answers to a terrifying upsurge of violence, for which there are even fewer military solutions than usual.

This is less of a problem than it might seem for Israelis, amongst whom only a fringe on the far right and far left think a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is possible. For the vast majority, it has become a case of conflict management. Part of that is making Israel’s case to the world, or at least to an echo chamber that will cheer “incitement” as the root – the only – cause of Palestinian violence. If the Palestinians can be shown to be the new Nazis, even better.

That’s a perfect fit for Netanyahu. He doesn’t mind embarrassing Angela Merkel, or himself, or inspiring possibly the best Downfall parody yet, in his fearless attempt to provide answers his constituency want to hear. Even if they aren’t true.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and writes widely on foreign affairs

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    “A very committed conspiracy theorist is as attached to their theories as any significant religious person is to their faith or a political ideologue to a political idea that they really don’t want to give up.”

    His book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History explores the importance of rationality in the information age.

    “The sources of information available to young people today are at a level that we never dreamed of. It will be increasingly important that as the information revolution deepens, to create spaces that have a rationalist kite mark on them - spaces that have a badge of quality on them. I think its going to be one of the big discussions of the next 10 years.”

    For Aaronovitch deconstructing conspiracy theories and finding the truth is vitally important.

    “It matters because one is true and one isn’t. It matters trying to get at the true versions of history and the true versions of science as far as we can know them. That effort matters.”

    First broadcast 29/05/09