Biden administration urged to block extremist Israeli minister’s visit

Chris McGreal 

The Guardian  /  March 7, 2023 

Several groups and individuals are rallying against Bezalel Smotrich’s visit over his comments to ‘wipe out’ a Palestinian town.

The Biden administration is under growing pressure to block a visit by Israel’s extremist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, over his call to “wipe out” a Palestinian town that was the target of an attack by Jewish settlers.

Smotrich’s plan to speak at an investment conference in Washington DC next week has drawn unusually strong criticism, including accusations that he is promoting “Jewish supremacy”, from individuals and groups that are more usually ardent defenders of Israel.

More than 100 Jewish American leaders signed a statement opposing the visit by leader of the Religious Zionism party in Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government. It said they “reject the notion that someone must be accorded respect simply by dint of serving in the Israeli government”.

“We call on all pro-Israel Americans to understand that welcoming Smotrich here will harm, rather than help, support for Israel,” they said.

“Smotrich has long expressed views that are abhorrent to the vast majority of American Jews, from anti-Arab racism, to virulent homophobia, to a full-throated embrace of Jewish supremacy. To this list, we can now add his endorsement of violence against innocents based on their ethnic heritage.”

The pro-Israel lobby group, J Street, called on the Biden administration to consider the unprecedented step of refusing a US visa to a senior Israeli government minister, and to refuse to meet him if he is allowed into the country.

“We agree with Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid that Smotrich’s comments constitute ‘incitement to a war crime’,” it said.

Israeli media reported that the US has yet to approve the visa amid discussions among White House officials about how to proceed.

Smotrich has been widely condemned for comments after a mob of several hundred religious settlers attacked Hawara a week ago, burning dozens of buildings and cars, and killing a Palestinian in what an Israeli military commander called a “pogrom”.

The Israeli finance minister, whose position gives him authority over settlement construction in the occupied territories, criticised the settlers for taking matters into their own hands but said the military should act instead.

“I think the village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” he said.

The attack on Hawara followed the shooting death of two brothers from a nearby settlement earlier in the day which in turn came after a series of Israeli military raids on the West Bank cities including on Nablus in which 11 Palestinians, militants and civilians, were killed.

Smotrich later claimed to have made “a slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions”, and that he intended only to target “terrorists and supporters of terrorism”.

His statement added to diplomatic tensions with Washington over Netanyahu’s right-wing policies after the Israeli press reported that the US ambassador, Tom Nides, said that if he was on the flight to Washington with Smotrich he would “throw him off the plane”.

The US embassy denied the remarks but Smotrich responded by accusing Nides of endangering his life, albeit unintentionally.

“I am not angry with him and am convinced that he did not mean to incite for my killing when he said that I should be thrown from the plane, just as I did not mean harm to innocents when I said that Hawara should be wiped out,” he tweeted.

The signatories of the statement include three former US ambassadors to Israel; the former director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Abraham Foxman; and the leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious denominations.

The former chief executive of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Thomas Dine, also signed. Aipac itself has remained silent on Smotrich’s comments but said it had no plans to meet the minister. The ADL said “it’s inexcusable for [Smotrich] to incite mass violence against Palestinians as a form of collective punishment”.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, called Smotrich’s statement “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting”, echoing language used by the US state department.

Some Jewish American leaders have warned that Smotrich and actions by Netanyahu’s government, including its attempts to curb judicial powers which has led to large demonstrations in Israel, is doing damage to the country’s image abroad and undermining support in the US.

Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Herzog, sought to dampen the criticism by distancing the government from Smotrich’s views.

“Notwithstanding the fact that Israel has been subjected to a recent wave of horrific terror attacks against its civilians, it is absolutely not Israeli policy, and it’s against our values, to respond by wiping out civilian villages,” he told CNN.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem