Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
August 29, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel was in an uproar on Sunday over a refusal by Israeli theater artists to perform in West Bank Jewish settlements, and Palestinians were outraged by a virulently anti-Palestinian sermon by a Jerusalem rabbi, further fueling the atmosphere days before the expected resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington.

The artists’ protest awakened internal debate in Israel over the legitimacy of the Jewish settlements, while the Palestinian government condemned the sermon delivered by the influential rabbi on Saturday in which he described the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as “evil” and called on God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague; these evil haters of Israel.”

Excerpts of the sermon were broadcast on Israel Radio on Sunday.

The Iraqi-born rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, 89, is the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government coalition. A widely respected religious authority, Rabbi Yosef also is known for his incendiary pronouncements against Arabs and homosexuals, among others.

Referring to Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, by his popular name, the rabbi said that “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth.”

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in a statement that the rabbi was “literally calling for a genocide against Palestinians” and “for the assassination of President Abbas.”

Mr. Netanyahu stopped short of condemning the rabbi’s remarks, but his office said in a statement that they “do not reflect Netanyahu’s views, nor do they reflect the stance of the Israeli government.”

The statement continued, “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.”

Eli Yishai, the interior minister and the political leader of Shas, had no comment, according to his media adviser, Roei Lachmanovich.

Skepticism about the chances of a peace deal within 12 months — the goal set by the Obama administration — already is running high among Israelis and Palestinians, and nerves are raw on both sides.

Israel is usually the one accusing the Palestinians of incitement, citing the naming of public squares, streets and cultural events for Palestinians who planned or carried out bloody attacks against Israelis.

The Palestinian leadership has focused until now on the issue of settlements and the looming question of the partial Israeli moratorium on settlement construction, which is due to expire on Sept. 26.

In a speech broadcast on Palestinian television on Sunday night, Mr. Abbas said that the Palestinians had “informed all concerned parties, including the Americans, before agreeing to participate in the negotiations, that Israel will be held responsible for risking the failure or undermining of the negotiations if it continues settlement expansion in any form in the Palestinian land occupied since 1967,” in a reference to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The direct negotiations, scheduled to start Thursday, will be the first in 20 months.

The Palestinians aspire to an independent state in the territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war. The West Bank is now dotted with Jewish settlements, which are home to about 300,000 Israelis. Israel maintains that the territory is disputed. Most of the world considers the settlements to be illegal under international law.

More than 50 Israeli actors and playwrights signed a letter on Thursday to the managements of six Israeli theaters protesting plans to stage productions in a new performing arts center scheduled to open in the urban settlement of Ariel in November. The artists asked the theater managers to limit their activity to sovereign Israeli territory within the 1967 lines.

The letter led to threats by members of the Israeli Parliament of economic consequences for the theaters, which are partly state-financed.

The managements of four major theaters responded with a statement saying that they “will perform in any place where there are theater-loving Israelis, including the new cultural center in Ariel.”

The issue of performing in West Bank settlements has not arisen before because there were no large facilities there to host major productions, Noam Semel, the director general of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, said by telephone.

In a separate response, Miki Gurevitch, the artistic director of the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, posed the question of whether excluding Ariel from Israel’s social borders would mean that the artists were excluding themselves from society.

Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday that the Israeli government did “not need to fund boycotts” directed at Israeli citizens. The Israeli government has been critical of a Palestinian Authority boycott of produce from Israeli settlements.

Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, said by telephone that the problem was between the theater managers and their employees. He added that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on a territory-for-peace formula were bound to fail.

Ariel has been a sticking point in past negotiations — with Israel insisting on keeping it within its borders and the Palestinians insisting on its removal — because it juts far into the West Bank.

Amid the discord, and in an effort to win over the Israeli public, a number of Palestinian leaders have recorded one-minute video clips expressing their seriousness about the negotiations and commitment to peace. The clips, sponsored by a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization and paid for by the American government, began to appear on Web sites on Sunday and were expected to spread to electronic billboards in the coming days.

“Shalom to you in Israel,” states Mr. Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, in one such clip. Like a half-dozen others, Mr. Erekat’s message is, “I am your partner.” He expresses confidence that a two-state solution can be reached.


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