Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat Photo by Dan Keinan
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Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Sunday slammed remarks by the spiritual leader of Israel's leading ultra-Orthodox party, who said the Palestinians should "perish", saying that it was paramount to incitement to genocide.

Erekat called on the Israeli government to denounce the remarks by Israel's former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and to take action against racist remarks by other elected officials. He also criticized Israel for allowing the incident to pass without condemnation.

Yosef had said during his weekly Shabbat sermon that the Palestinians, namely Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, should perish from the world. Yosef, a founder of the Shas Party, also described Palestinians as evil, bitter enemies of Israel.

"All these evil people should perish from this world ... God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians," Yosef had said.

The 89-year-old is a respected religious scholar but is also known for vitriolic comments about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gays, among others.

"Is this how the Israeli government prepares its public for a peace agreement?" Erekat said, days before Israeli and Palestinian leaders were scheduled to meet in Washington for the launch of renewed direct peace negotiations.

"While the PLO is ready to resume negotiations in seriousness and good faith, a member of the Israeli government is calling for our destruction," Erekat said. "It is an insult to all our efforts to advance the negotiations process."

Erekat called on Israel "do more about peace and stop spreading hatred" and said Yosef's comments could be placed within the larger context of Israel's "policy against a Palestinian state" such as settlement expansion, home demolitions, among other things.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday distanced himself from Yosef's remarks, but stopped short of a condemnation. "Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's remarks do not reflect Netanyahu's views, nor do they reflect the stance of the Israeli government," Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

"Israel plans to take part in peace negotiations out of a desire to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians that will end the conflict and ensure peace, security and good neighborly relations between the two peoples," the statement continued.

Israeli Arab MK Jamal Zahalka, chair of the Balad Knesset faction, sent a letter to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, demanding that Yosef be investigated and tried for racist incitement and incitement to murder.

"Yosef's comments are especially dangerous because he keeps repeating himself again and again, so he must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," MK Zahalka said.

According to Zahalka, Yosef is not a minor public figure, but a spiritual leader whose religious edicts are adhered to by hundreds of thousands of followers, and his comments can be interpreted as permission to kill Palestinians.

Zahalka added, "If, heaven forbid, a Muslim spiritual leader were to make anti-Jewish comments of this sort, he would be arrested immediately."

MK Ahmed Tibi, chair of the United Arab List-Ta'al Knesset faction, also responded to Yosef's comments, saying that the rabbi "has long since turned into the biggest blasphemer, the evilest purveyor of hatred and killing, which are contrary to all religions."

MK Tibi called upon Yosef to reconsider his call for all evildoers to die, "because without realizing it, he is calling for his own death."

In the past, Israel has accused the Palestinian government of incitement against the Jewish state, including by naming streets after Palestinian militants.

The Palestinian Authority has dismissed such allegations, though U.S. President Barack Obama told Abbas earlier this year he needs to do more to halt incitement against Israel.