Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday evening sought to reframe National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s comments on Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank, amid growing criticism abroad of his far-right ally’s comments that the right of Jews to travel safely in the West Bank takes precedence.
Netanyahu’s comments on Ben Gvir, who heads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, came after the Biden administration and American Jewish groups denounced the latter’s comments, with the US State Department in a rare move calling him out by name.
Meanwhile, an unnamed senior government source assailed the police minister, telling Channel 12 news his statement had handed a gift to anti-Israel activists around the world and given a “dramatic” boost to claims of Israeli apartheid.
On Wednesday, while explaining his support for tightening restrictions on Palestinians amid an ongoing terror wave, Ben Gvir told Channel 12, “My right, and my wife’s and my children’s rights, to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria, is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.”
“Sorry Mohammad,” he said to journalist Mohammad Magadli, who argued with him during the interview. “But that’s the reality. That’s the truth. My right to life comes before their right to movement.”
In his first public comment on Ben Gvir’s remarks, Netanyahu’s office insisted Israel allows “maximum freedom of movement” in the West Bank for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“Unfortunately, Palestinian terrorists take advantage of this freedom of movement to murder Israeli women, children and families by ambushing them at certain points on different routes,” his office said in a statement, while noting deadly attacks this year on West Bank highways, most recently Monday’s killing of an Israeli woman.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that to prevent such attacks, security forces have put in place “special security measures in these areas.”
“This is what Minister Ben Gvir meant,” continued the statement. “Israel will continue its policy of maintaining security while affording freedom of movement for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Media commentators noted that Netanyahu’s statement, issued only in English and shortly before the start of Shabbat, seemed tailored to avoid eliciting a reaction from the religious Ben Gvir.
On Channel 12, an unnamed senior government official called Ben Gvir’s comments “a public relations disaster.”
He said the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “got what it needed, a trump card that will be paraded out and has already been paraded out to attack Israel.
“The claim that Israel is an apartheid state — which we fight with all our might from every possible platform — has been dramatically strengthened from within Israel, by a senior minister.”
Speaking to Channel 13 Friday, Ben Gvir said there was “a coward” in the government speaking out against him. “I have an assessment [as to who it is]. It’s not someone senior. “I expect that coward to say things in his own name. I expect him to say settlers have the right to live without being harmed. I expect all the Israeli government to say what I’m saying.”
The American Jewish Committee joined the condemnations on Friday, calling Ben Gvir’s comments “unacceptable.”
“Of course safety is vital, but Minister Ben Gvir’s use of this divisive language does nothing but fan the flames of tension and hatred,” it wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, meanwhile, refused to comment on Ben Gvir’s remarks during an interview with Israeli television.
“I will not address comments by politicians,” Hanegbi, a veteran member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Channel 12. “I will not address this remark, it’s a pity to waste time… Let’s move on.”
Ben Gvir doubled down on his comments earlier Friday, as he sparred with model and activist Bella Hadid after she shared a clip of the remarks with her almost 60 million Instagram followers. The post was captioned: “At no place, at no time, especially in 2023 should one life be more valuable than another’s especially simply because of their ethnicity, culture, or pure hatred.”
The minister said his comments had been taken out of context, while reemphasizing his belief that Jewish safety came before freedom of movement for Palestinians.
“Yes, it’s my right and the rights of my fellow Jews to travel to and from our homes on the roads of Judea and Samaria in peace, and it is greater than the rights of terrorists who throw stones at us and murder us,” he said. “I don’t apologize or take back my comments. I will repeat them 1,000 times.”
This is how fake news is spread: I said yesterday on a TV broadcast that the right of Jews to live and not be murdered in terror attacks prevails over the right of Arabs in Judea and Samaria to travel on the roads without security restrictions. That is why checkpoints should be… pic.twitter.com/St9hXpqoIj
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) August 24, 2023
Also Friday, a senior diplomatic official told the Ynet news site that Ben Gvir’s comments were “a mega-attack on Israel’s public diplomacy that reveals the true face of the government.”
“The damage is immense,” the unnamed source said, adding that Ben Gvir’s comments had provided Israel’s critics with “golden evidence” to support their claims that Israel is a racist and an apartheid state.
They also noted that neither Netanyahu — at the time the comments were made — nor other senior government ministers, had refuted Ben Gvir’s comments, making it hard to argue that this was not official government policy.
Ben Gvir has long faced accusations of racism due to a history of inflammatory comments toward Arabs and Palestinians and his identification as a disciple of Meir Kahane.
Ben Gvir was convicted on terror-related charges in the past for anti-Arab activities. He insists he has moderated in recent years, and does not believe in all of the views of his mentor, such as Kahane’s calls for expelling all Arabs. Instead, Ben Gvir has said he only supports expelling “disloyal” Arabs. The far-right Otzma Yehudit party chairman has continued to speak at annual memorial events for Kahane.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.