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March 13, 2023 4:35 pm

Israeli Finance Minister Faces Cold US Reception Over Palestinian Comments


avatar by Andrew Bernard

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaking at the Israel Bonds leadership conference in Washington, DC. 12 March, 2023. (Photo: Screenshot)

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Sunday expressed his “sincere regret” at a Washington, DC conference for calling for the Israeli government to “erase” a Palestinian town as hundreds of activists protested his appearance.

“I want to say a few words about the elephant in the room,” Smotrich told the audience at the leadership conference of Israel Bonds, a financial organization that supports American investment in Israeli debt. “As I have already said and written and repeat now with sincere regret, my comment after Huwara created a completely mistaken impression. I stand before you now, as always, committed to the security of the state of Israel, to our shared values, and the highest moral commitment of our armed forces to protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.” 

Smotrich, who is the leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party and part of the governing coalition, said at a financial conference on March 1st that Israel should “erase” the West Bank Palestinian town of Huwara, where a Palestinian shot dead two Israelis earlier that week and which was then the site of a reprisal rampage by Israeli settlers which left one Palestinian dead and dozens of homes destroyed. The US State Department called his comments “irresponsible…repugnant…[and] disgusting” in a rare public rebuke of an Israeli official by the US government. 

The Israel Bonds event garnered criticism from both activist groups opposed to Israel as well as more mainstream Zionist groups. Americans for Peace Now, which co-organized the protest, claimed that some 500 people demonstrated against Smotrich’s visit in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC. The left-wing activist organization IfNotNow claimed that seven of its members were arrested after they sat in the hotel’s lobby to pray.

A spokesperson for the Israel Bonds — which was founded in 1951 and routinely hosts Israeli political figures — emphasized in a statement to The Algemeiner that the group was politically neutral.

“Our organization has only one focus, and it has remained the same over the course of our seventy-two years: To foster investments in support of the state of Israel,” the group said. “To be perfectly clear, Israel Bonds is an independent financial organization based in the US. It does not endorse, and it is not associated with any political administration, individual, or any ideology.”

In a lengthy Facebook post on Wednesday, Smotrich clarified his remarks after it was brought to his attention that they had contributed to a protest by Israel’s air force reserve pilots.

“Some of the pilots took my statement as a call for the air force to ‘erase’ the village and its inhabitants from the air,” Smotrich wrote. “Such a delusional thought never crossed my mind, not even for a split second. It’s just not in my lexicon.”

In addition to his fiscal responsibilities as Finance Minister, Smotrich also has an official position in the Ministry of Defense, and is responsible for broad civil administrative powers over the West Bank, including settlement construction. He also told Israeli media that his comments were a “slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions” over the shootings.

Those clarifications followed an open letter on 3 March organized by the Israel Policy Forum, an NGO that promotes the two-state solution, calling for US Jewish groups to refrain from meeting with him.

“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,” the letter says. “We reject the notion that someone must be accorded respect simply by dint of serving in the Israeli government. His presence in the U.S. to address primarily Jewish audiences would be an affront to American Jewish values, and he should not be given a platform in our community, all the more so in light of his most recent comments about Huwara.”

Signatories to the letter include Abe Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League; Steve Grossman, former president of AIPAC; and former Ambassadors Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer, who served under the Clinton and Bush administrations, respectively.

That call to avoid meeting with Smotrich has largely been heeded. Smotrich’s itinerary does not include any meetings with US government officials. 

Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), who is meeting with Smotrich later this week to discuss Iran, Palestinian terrorism, Israel’s judicial reform bills and other issues said that the criticism of those meeting with Smotrich gives ammunition to Israel’s critics.

“I find it appalling that not only do the major Jewish organizations refuse to meet with him after he has apologized, they’ll condemn me for meeting with him.” Klein told The Algemeiner

Smotrich is also reportedly meeting with the Orthodox Union. The OU did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Algemeiner.

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