JERUSALEM — Israeli historians and opposition politicians on Wednesday joined Palestinians in denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel for saying it was a Palestinian, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who gave Hitler the idea of annihilating European Jews during World War II.
Netanyahu said in a speech to the Zionist Congress on Tuesday night that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews.” The prime minister said that the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had protested to Hitler that “they’ll all come here,” referring to Palestine.
“‘So what should I do with them?’” Netanyahu quoted Hitler as asking al-Husseini. “He said, ‘Burn them.’”
Professor Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, called the speech “a lie” and “a disgrace.” Professor Moshe Zimmermann, a specialist of German history at Hebrew University, said, “With this, Netanyahu joins a long line of people that we would call Holocaust deniers.”
Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition in the Israeli Parliament, said the accusation was “a dangerous historical distortion,” and he demanded that Netanyahu “correct it immediately.”
Even Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister and a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said in a radio interview that “history is actually very, very clear.”
“Hitler initiated it,” he said. “Haj Amin al-Husseini joined him.”
The controversy came amid weeks of spiraling violence in which Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly accused Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, of lying, principally about Israel’s actions at a contested holy site in the Old City.
Diplomatic efforts to cool tempers led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, who visited with Netanyahu on Tuesday and Abbas on Wednesday, appear to have yielded little. Speaking at a news conference in Ramallah, West Bank, on Wednesday, Ban said: “Our most urgent challenge is to stop the current wave of violence and avoid any further loss of life.”
Abbas was the subject of scrutiny last week when he falsely claimed that Israeli forces had executed a 13-year-old Palestinian who had attacked Israelis with a knife, when the youth was alive and being treated in an Israeli hospital.
Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Wednesday that Netanyahu’s “regrettable statements have deepened the divide” and denounced them as “morally indefensible and inflammatory.”
“Mr. Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the Holocaust and completely absolved Adolf Hitler’s heinous and reprehensible genocide of the Jewish people,” Erekat said in a statement. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbor so much that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history.”
Netanyahu, who had also called the mufti “one of the leading architects of the Final Solution” in a 2012 speech, on Wednesday called the criticism of his remarks “absurd.”
“My intention was not to absolve Hitler of his responsibility,” he said as he left Israel for Germany, where he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “But rather to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation, without a country and without the so-called occupation, without land and without settlements, even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.”
“Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution to exterminate 6 million Jews; he made the decision,” Netanyahu added. “It is equally absurd to ignore the role played by the mufti, Haj Amin al -Husseini, a war criminal, for encouraging and urging Hitler.”
Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday in Berlin, said he would ask Kerry to demand that Abbas “stop the incitement that is the source of many attacks that we see here.”
There is broad agreement that the mufti, who helped instigate Arab pogroms against Jews in the Holy Land in the 1920s, collaborated with the Nazis as part of his virulent opposition to Zionism. Historians differ, however, on the significance of his relationships with Nazi leaders and the meeting with Hitler that Netanyahu described. The mufti’s promotion of genocide over mass deportation of Europe’s Jews was discussed in the Nuremberg war crimes trials, but he was never prosecuted and died in 1974.
Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, referred reporters to Netanyahu’s 1993 book, “A Place Among the Nations,” which details the mufti’s close ties to Nazis and uses Nuremberg testimony to buttress the argument that the mufti protested plans to expel Jews from Europe and promoted the Final Solution.
“The mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser” in the “execution of this plan,” the book quotes Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, Dieter Wisliceny, as having testified.
But the book says that the mufti “met Hitler in person for the first time” on Nov. 28, 1941 — two months before the Final Solution was formalized and the construction of extermination camps accelerated, according to historians, but after the mass murder of Jews had begun, and roughly 1 million had perished.
Zimmermann, the Hebrew University historian, said on Israel Radio that Netanyahu was “doing something he must not do,” and that in “the protocol” of the 1941 meeting between the mufti and Hitler, “the text that Netanyahu speaks of does not appear.”
“He moves the responsibility of the Holocaust, for the destruction of the Jews, to the mufti and the Arab world,” Zimmermann said. “This is a trick intended to stain the Arabs of today because of the Arabs of the past.”
Litvak of Tel Aviv University said “Hitler did not need Husseini to convince him” and “spoke of the destruction of the Jews” as early as 1939.
Stefan Ihrig, a German historian at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and the author of “Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination,” said that Netanyahu “is right in noting that there were connections between the grand mufti and the Nazis.” But he added that “this cannot be used to shift blame away from the Nazis,” and that it “does not provide us with new scapegoats.”
But Edy Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Arab collaboration with the Nazis, said he supported Netanyahu’s take on history, though he said it was impossible to precisely balance blame for the extermination idea.
“What I can surely say is that both men mutually inspired each other,” Cohen said. “One can’t be in their heads and know who hated Jews more.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud leader in Parliament who is close to Netanyahu, also rushed to the prime minister’s defense, telling Israel Radio, “He made no mistake.”
The mufti, Hanegbi said, “also tried to ensure that when the Germans reached Israel, as he hoped they would, they would also destroy the Jews of Israel.”