Ovadia Yosef, Tomer Appelbaum, 27.6.10
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Interior Minister Eli Yishai at Jerusalem synagogue. 27.6.10 Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Shas spiritual leader asked God to hit Abbas and Palestinians with a plague

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long demanded that the Palestinians fight incitement against Israel. But when his turn came to respond to anti-Palestinian incitement yesterday, he fell short of out-and-out condemnation.

Instead, he said merely that the government does not share the sentiments expressed by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said in a sermon Saturday night that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and all the Palestinians should die of a plague.

"The words of the rabbi do not reflect my approach or the position of the Israeli government," Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday. "Israel comes to the negotiating table out of a desire to proceed with the Palestinians to an agreement that would end the conflict and ensure peace, security and good neighborly relations."

But Netanyahu, who is due to meet Abbas in Washington later this week, did not comment on the morality of Yosef's statements. As far as is not known, he has also not spoken to the chairman of the Shas party, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, on the matter.

In contrast, the U.S. administration issued a sharply worded condemnation last night.

"We regret and condemn the inflammatory statements by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef," an American official told Haaretz. "We note the Israeli statement that the rabbi's comments do not reflect the views of the prime minister. These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace. As we move forward to relaunch peace negotiations, it is important that actions by people on all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it."

The 89-year-old Yosef, who is known for making comments that many Israelis consider outrageous, said: "Abu Mazen [Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this earth. God should strike them and these Palestinians, evil haters of Israel, with a plague."

Some of the rabbi's listeners responded by saying amen.

No public statements

Yishai has instructed all party members not to make any public statements about the sermon. The clampdown came after several of his colleagues spoke to the media in an effort to soften Yosef's statement.

One such attempt was made by Shas MK Nissim Zeev, who said yesterday that Yosef was misunderstood. Zeev said Yosef didn't want anyone to die, but just wanted the Israel-haters' hostility to disappear. "The rabbi supports peace," Zeev said.

Yosef's comments provoked fierce reactions. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said these comments were tantamount to calling for "genocide against Palestinians."

The rabbi's remarks, he added, were "an insult to all our efforts to advance the negotiations process. While the Palestinian Authority is seriously prepared to resume negotiations, the leader of a party in the [Israeli] government is calling for our destruction."

MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz ) said: "He probably was a genius in his youth, but his old age puts his youth to shame. The issue is not with hate speech coming from an elderly man, probably afflicted with dementia, but with his flock, who believe this."

Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Ahmed Tibi, chairman of the United Arab List-Ta'al faction, said the rabbi has long since become "the leader of the evil-doers and inciters, someone who spreads hate speech and the values of death and killing, which are far removed from the values of any religion."