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Israel’s Smotrich met with protests in France, vows to continue judicial reform

At the OECD ministerial meeting in Paris, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich dismissed warnings in the organization's economic report that the judicial overhaul will hurt Israel’s economy.
Anti-Judicial overhaul demonstrators protest against the arrival of Israel's Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, outside the OECD headquarters, June 7 2023

PARIS — Attending the OECD ministerial meeting in Paris Wednesday, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich pledged to continue with the judicial overhaul plan advanced by the Israeli right.

Speaking with Al-Monitor, Smotrich brought up the Economic Outlook 2023 report, which includes economic forecasts for all member countries, expressing pleasure at its findings despite its outlook that Israel’s economy will expand at a more moderate pace this year and in 2024. The report also cited the risk of continued political tensions in Israel around the government’s judicial overhaul plan as one of the reasons for the more moderate expansion pace expected.

Asked for further comment, he played down those concerns. "There is not even one organization in the world saying that the positive judicial reform we are advancing will harm Israel’s economy. There are remarks in different forums regarding the political instability, and especially the lack of responsibility of some of the people objecting to the reform," he said.

These "remarks," Smotrich argued, "all refer to the political instability, which is the outcome of irresponsible people who are ready to harm our social cohesion, our security and our economy. The [current protests] are illegitimate tools to conduct a debate, which in itself is legitimate in a democracy. We have seen no damage to Israel’s economy, which is strong. We are determined to carry out the reform in a responsible and professional manner, much as we did with the budget we passed and with the labor agreements we got signed. All these will generate stability for the Israeli market for many years to come."

Dozens of Israeli and French activists demonstrated on Wednesday outside of the OECD headquarters in Paris against Smotrich, one of the country’s far-right leaders and a champion of the judicial overhaul. Protesters carried banners reading "We won’t let you destroy Israel’s democracy" and "Smotrich go home" and wore black shirts in solidarity with the protests across Israel. More banners called on the OECD to declare Smotrich "persona non grata."

Smotrich's interview with Al-Monitor was punctuated by chanting from the protesters outside. Their calls were clearly heard for hours inside the OECD garden and even in the building. Smotrich dismissed the protesters, claiming that only 10-12 people were actually demonstrating.

Smotrich arrived in Paris on Tuesday. French authorities have indicated in the past that they would not meet with Smotrich and no meeting was scheduled for him with French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire nor officials in the Paris municipality.

Asked by Al-Monitor about his international isolation, Smotrich dismissed the idea, saying he has several meetings scheduled during the conference, including meetings with the finance ministers of Costa Rica and Peru. He also said that he is set to meet with OECD Secretary-General Mathis Cormann. Associates of Smotrich confirmed that no meetings were organized with the French, the British or the American ministers present at the conference. The meeting with Cormann will probably take place on Thursday. 

Last month, Cormann participated in a reception marking Israel’s 75th anniversary. Addressing the event, Cormann had praised Israel’s economy and high tech industry, but said he recognized the difficulties and challenges Israel’s society is currently facing. 

Smotrich last traveled to Paris in mid-March in what his office called a private visit. The Israeli minister participated in a memorial ceremony for a Likud French-Israeli activist who passed away two years ago.

Smotrich spoke at the memorial with a flag of so-called Greater Israel hanging behind him. “There is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” he said. The French Foreign Ministry and other European leaders, as well as Palestinians and Jordanians, condemned his remarks.

Sources in the French Jewish community told Al-Monitor that the presidents of the three main Jewish organizations in France (CRIF, Consistoire Centrale and the FSJU) did not attend a meeting organized Tuesday evening between Smotrich and lower-ranking community representatives. After that meeting, Smotrich met with French businesspeople, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the last time he visited Paris at the beginning of February.

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