JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked Wednesday on his claim that a Palestinian religious leader gave Adolf Hitler the idea to exterminate Jews after widespread controversy and a flood of online mockery.
During a speech on Tuesday, the Israeli leader suggested Hitler was not planning to exterminate the Jews until he met Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian nationalist, in 1941.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time. He wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress.
“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.'”
The comments were widely criticized, with Palestinian leaders and the Israeli opposition accusing him of distorting history, while historians called them inaccurate.
Online mockery also ensued, including one photo mock-up saying it was also the mufti “who really broke up The Beatles”.
On top of that, the controversy erupted just before Netanyahu left for a visit to Germany to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said accusations that his comments exonerated Hitler were “absurd” but stood by his claim that the Muslim leader who sympathised with the Nazis had an influence.
“I had no intention of exonerating Hitler from his diabolical responsibility for the extermination of European Jews,” he said shortly before flew to Germany.
“Hitler was responsible for the final solution of the extermination of six million. It was he who took the decision.
“(But) it is equally absurd to ignore the role played by the mufti… who encouraged Hitler, Ribbentrop, Himmler and others to exterminate European Jewry.”
The current German government was not spared the controversy, nor was Israeli President Reuven Rivlin as he visited the Czech Republic.
Speaking in Berlin, Netanyahu said “responsibility of Hitler and the Nazis for the extermination of six million Jews is clear to fair minded people”.
At the same time, he insisted that the Grand Mufti’s role should not be forgotten.
“He told the Nazis to prevent the fleeing of Jews from Europe and he supported the final solution,” insisted Netanyahu.
Merkel stressed her country’s inherent “responsibility for the Holocaust”.
“We don’t see any reason to change our view of history,” she said at a joint news conference with Netanyahu.
Rivlin, whose position as president is mainly ceremonial, criticised the mufti, but said that “in any case, it is Hitler who caused an endless suffering to our nation.”
Netanyahu made the comments after three weeks of Palestinian unrest and anti-Israeli attacks that have threatened a full-scale uprising.
The Israeli premier sought to tie his historical reference to current debates over the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, arguing that the mufti had also falsely claimed at the time that Jews were seeking to destroy it.
Netanyahu has said in recent weeks that such Palestinian incitement over the Al-Aqsa compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount, was helping feed the current unrest.
The Palestinians pounced on his remarks.
“It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbour so much that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history, Adolf Hitler, of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust,” Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general Saeb Erekat said in a statement.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the comments showed “how history is distorted and used against us”.
The leader of the Israeli opposition, Isaac Herzog, said on his Facebook page that “even the son of a historian must be precise when it comes to history,” referring to the premier’s late father, Benzion, who specialised in Jewish history.
The chief historian at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and research centre said Netanyahu’s comments were inaccurate.
“Though he had very extreme anti-Jewish positions, it wasn’t the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to exterminate the Jews,” Dina Porat told Agence France-Presse.
“The idea far predates their meeting in November 1941. In a speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler evoked ‘an extermination of the Jewish race’,” she said.