Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich does not appear to be ready for prime time. Last week, he “clarified” public remarks saying that the Arab village of Huwara—site of the terrorist slaying of two young Israeli men as well as a host of other attacks on Jews—should be “wiped out.” But he brought down on himself and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the kind of opprobrium that served to further undermine it at a moment when they were already facing intolerable pressure from the opposition and the international community over efforts to enact judicial reform.
Smotrich now claims that the comment wasn’t intended to suggest “erasing the village.” Instead, he said it was a call “to act in a focused manner against terrorists and supporters of terrorism within it and to exact a heavy price from them in order to restore security to the residents of the area.”
Had he merely said that in the first place, the comment wouldn’t have generated headlines around the world, as well as condemnations from Israel’s opposition parties, the U.S. State Department and many American Jews. Smotrich is still planning on coming to the United States this week. But thanks to this controversy, the chilly reception he was already likely to get is probably now going to be even colder.
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His statement played right into the hands of those who believe that the government he helped form is neither responsible nor able to deal with the complex problems the country faces. Expressing such repugnant sentiments at a time when many Israelis are justifiably enraged about the recent surge in terrorist murders may help Smotrich compete with Minister of Public Security Itamar Ben-Gvir—his electoral partner and rival for the affection of the Israeli right. But they also demonstrate that Smotrich doesn’t seem to understand that along with responsibilities and power, the challenge of high office involves showing that he’s capable of evolving from a right-wing provocateur into something like a statesman who works for the good of the country and all who live in it. To have spoken in that matter strengthens the argument that he simply is undeserving of a senior cabinet post, let alone the respect of his fellow citizens.
Still, what’s interesting about the furor stirred up by Smotrich is that it helped obscure some other outrageous stands about recent events, including one by Amnesty International. Many on the intersectional and anti-Zionist left reacted to the terror attacks and then the subsequent riot in which a group of Jews rampaged through Huwara setting fires, damaging property and fighting with local Arabs with a predictable lack of interest in the murder of Israelis. None, however, was more outrageous than the assertion by the group still considered by many to be a prestigious and reliable advocate for human rights around the world.
Amnesty’s statement on the Huwara riot made no reference to the terror attack that preceded it or to the many other brutal incidents Jews have been subjected to while traveling on a highway that passes the town. Instead, they focus only on the issue of “settler” violence against Arabs. While any crimes committed by Jews who live in Judea and Samaria against Palestinian Arabs should be punished, the narrative about the subject is distorted because incidents of Arab violence far outnumber those of Jewish attacks.
The riot in Huwara—and statements like those of Smotrich, which seemed to justify it—was wrong, and the perpetrators should be held accountable for it. Yet even if every rioter were prosecuted and jailed, that wouldn’t be enough for Amnesty. While it deplores some of Israel’s efforts to punish and deter terrorism, such as blowing up the homes of the families of terrorists, as “collective punishment,” it thinks that the only proper punishment for the damage done in Huwara is to expel every Jew living in Judea and Samaria from their homes.
That would involve the uprooting of nearly 500,000 people from towns and villages they have lived in for decades. And, since groups like Amnesty consider those parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 as no different from the most remote hilltop settlement in what they call the West Bank, the logic of Amnesty’s demand would also involve the expulsion of approximately 250,000 Jews from their homes in various neighborhoods that have been built since 1967, in addition to those who live in the Old City.
Amnesty and others, including some who say they accept the legitimacy of Israel in the pre-1967 armistice lines, believe that all Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria are illegal settlements. In order to promote the fiction that the West Bank is historically Arab, they ignore not just the history of the country but the early 20th-century international agreements such as the San Remo Treaty of 1920 and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine that both recognized the right of Jews to “close settlement” throughout all of the country.
Contrary to the mythology in which Israel is depicted as a colonial enterprise, Jews are the indigenous people of their historic homeland. That fact doesn’t invalidate the rights of Palestinian Arabs. But the anomalous situation in the West Bank, whose Arab communities are autonomously ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority, is a function of their refusal to negotiate a peace in which they would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.
To note this is not “whataboutism.” Amnesty is already one of the principal authors of the “apartheid Israel” smear, a big lie rooted in antisemitism and hatred. But for Amnesty, and others in the “human rights” sector, Jews have no rights. That is the reason why they view the destruction of the homes of several hundred thousand people, including schools and synagogues in places where Jews have lived for millennia, as “justice.”
If any Israeli or Jew were to suggest depopulating Arab villages and towns and expelling that many Palestinians, Amnesty would be labeling them racists who should be treated as pariahs. But say the same about Jews, and you can be considered an “anti-racist” or advocate for human rights. That’s also why they treat Palestinian terrorist murders as merely a case of Jews getting their just desserts instead of crimes against humanity.
So, perhaps it is understandable that while Smotrich is roasted, Amnesty’s call for the mass expulsion of Jews in response to Huwara was ignored.
None of this should get Smotrich off the hook.
The results of the November Knesset election gave him the opportunity to recreate himself as a major figure in Israeli politics. But for this arrangement to work out in the long run, it was also going to have to mean that his behavior was going to have to change along with their job titles. That meant acting like an adult government minister with real power—and not as if he was still operating on the margins of Israeli political life and the subject of investigations from a security establishment that still views him with suspicion.
By diving into the Huwara mess in the worst possible way, Smotrich demonstrated more than a dark side to his personality. It showed that he has not yet started thinking like someone who sees the big picture the way Netanyahu or anyone who aspires to lead the country should.
Still, those who are preparing to boycott him should ask themselves how they would behave towards Arabs or other opponents of Israel with their own records of inflammatory statements. Those calling for the State Department to deny him a visa to enter the United States are not just overreacting to a terrible statement. If they don’t similarly oppose visas for Palestinians or Iranians or anyone else who calls for Israel’s elimination, then they aren’t just hypocrites; they’re enablers of antisemitism. If you see no problem with hosting members of Israeli Arab parties that are anti-Zionist or Islamist or those who share Amnesty’s desire to make the West Bank judenrein, then don’t pretend you stand on the moral high ground in relation to Smotrich.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.