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Far-right ministers endanger Israel's ties with US

Statements by senior Israeli officials in favor of "wiping out" the Palestinian Huwara village, as well as calls for the US "to mind its own business," are threatening the strategically important alliance between the two countries.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Economy Minister Nir Barkat look on during a press conference at the prime minister's office, Jerusalem, Jan. 25, 2023.

TEL AVIV — An unnamed National Security Council spokesperson told the American press on Thursday that no meetings were planned for next week between Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and any American officials, not even officials in the US Treasury department.

Smotrich is scheduled to arrive in Washington for the annual event of Israel Bonds organization, taking place on March 12-14.

The National Security Council comment came on the backdrop of a statement made by Smotrich the day before — that Israel should “wipe out” the West Bank Palestinian village of Huwara. Two Israeli brothers were shot and killed while passing through Huwara last Sunday. Dozens of Israeli settlers stormed the village in the ensuing hours, burning 35 homes to the ground, damaging other houses and cars and traumatizing the local population.

Smotrich’s shocking statement generated an especially harsh reaction from the Biden administration. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the comments by Smotrich were irresponsible. “[They] were repugnant; they were disgusting. And just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence,” he said.

Price continued by calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials “to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments.”

Such angry and blatant messages from Washington against an Israeli official are not trivial. In 2014, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg cited an unnamed senior American official who called Netanyahu a "chickenshit prime minister." Then-Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to distance himself and apologize for these words. This time was different. Price spoke directly to the cameras, as “on-the-record” and as “in-your-face” as it gets.  

Smotrich was not the only Israeli official to back the rioting settlers. Shortly after the settlers’ rampage, Knesset member Zvika Fogel of the far-right Jewish Power party made a similar comment. "Yesterday a terrorist came from Huwara — Huwara is [now] closed and burned. That's what I want to see. Only in that way can we obtain deterrence," he said in a radio interview. Subsequently, General Attorney Gali Baharav-Miara authorized the police to summon Fogel, to investigate possible incitement to hate or violence.

Smotrich himself had “liked” on Sunday — after the terrorist attack and before the rampage — a tweet by Samaria Regional Council Deputy Mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called to "wipe out" Huwara. After the settlers’ rampage, Smotrich deleted his “like.” “We must not take the law into our hands and create a dangerous anarchy that could get out of control and cost human lives," he then said.

Still, this did not prevent Smotrich from making his shocking Wednesday statement. Realizing the diplomatic crisis he had generated, Smotrich said that his words were misunderstood, insisting he was against anyone taking the law into their own hands. Evidently, the clarification of Smotrich failed to calm down the flames.

A senior Israeli political official spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about Smotrich. "It is difficult to describe the extent of the damage this has caused us — at such a sensitive and critical point. Smotrich is acting like an elephant in a china shop. The eyes of the world are on Israel, as the government is trying to shake off its extreme and messianic image, and he comes and says that a Palestinian village should be erased."

The senior official noted that Smotrich is not only a senior member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, but also a minister within the Defense Ministry, responsible for the Civil Administration that governs the lives of settlers in the West Bank.

"Smotrich shares the responsibility over the West Bank with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. God knows how he [Smotrich] allows himself to cause such heavy damage. It will probably take years to repair this, assuming that repairing is even possible."

As things stand, an invitation by President Joe Biden for Netanyahu to visit the White House looks almost like science fiction. The fact that the elections in Israel were held four months ago and that such an invitation has not yet been delivered is unprecedented. Israel under Netanyahu had invested close to a billion shekels in purchasing and equipping a luxurious plane for his use, but at the moment he has nowhere to fly to. Even the United Arab Emirates have not yet approved a first Netanyahu visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, despite the desire Netanyahu expressed already during his election campaign to make such a visit his first trip abroad as prime minister.

Meeting with her Israeli counterpart in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed om Tuesday her country’s concerns over the judicial overhaul advanced by the Netanyahu government. Germany is one of Israel’s greatest allies. Still, much like the statement by Ned Price, the German concerns were expressed live, in front of the cameras, during a festive joint press conference with Minister Eli Cohen.

The statements by Price and Baerbock do not bode well for Israel’s international standing, but this is clearly just the beginning. Much more of the same is likely to come.

On the American side, Ambassador Tom Nides is in charge of managing this turmoil. Nides reminds many Israelis of one of his predecessors — democrat Dan Shapiro — who served during the Obama administration. Nides is Jewish, and basically considered as an Israel sympathizer, but little could have prepared him for the current Israeli chaos. 

Since his arrival to Jerusalem, Nides has managed to establish good relations and cooperation with quite a few political, economic and social local actors. His intentions are good, but he is facing the most extreme and nationalist government governing the country since its establishment.

On Feb. 20, Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli warned Nides not to express himself publicly on the government’s judicial overhaul. "To Ambassador Nides I say this pure and simple: Mind your own business," stated Chikli.

“Some official, I don’t know who he is, I never met him, suggested I should stay out of Israel’s business. I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business,” Nides said on Tuesday, forced to react.

Nides’ tit for tat, avoiding to mention Chikli’s name, positioned the picture in its correct angle. Israel and the United States are like a dog and its tail. And Israel, despite the current arrogance of its leaders, is not playing the role of the dog in this story.

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