Embassy staffer in Paris accused of foiling Smotrich meetings with Jewish leaders

TV report says Foreign Ministry investigating claims diplomat told community figures to avoid far-right minister, or at least protest overhaul; Rothman: Recall envoy and fire staff

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Staff at Israel’s embassy in Paris worked to prevent Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from meeting with members of the Jewish community when he was in the country last week, according to a Hebrew-language report Monday.

Unnamed senior figures in the Jewish community told Channel 12 news that a worker in the office of acting ambassador Haim Waxman urged them to not meet with Smotrich, a far-right politician whose comments about Arabs have drawn broad international condemnation.

The figures said they were told that if they did meet with Smotrich, they should speak out against his government’s plans to drastically reconfigure judicial powers, which the worker reportedly termed as “the regime coup.”

The worker denied trying to foil Smotrich’s meetings, the channel reported.

At the time of the visit, French officials and leaders of the three main Jewish community organizations in the country were said to be refusing to sit down with Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party. The minister was in Paris for an annual two-day ministerial summit hosted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Waxman did not greet Smotrich in person when he arrived in the country and did not join the minister when he visited the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket where four Jews were killed in a 2015 terrorist shooting. An embassy representative arrived by taxi bringing flowers and candles, the report said.

The Foreign Ministry told the station that Smotrich and his staff would have dealt with Ambassador Haim Assaraff, who represents Israel in multilateral organizations, including the OECD. It said the interference claims would be investigated.

Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, is among the most controversial figures in Israeli politics, with a long history of campaigning against the LGBTQ community, Arabs, Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews. In March, Smotrich’s call for the West Bank town of Huwara to be “wiped out” following a terror shooting and settler rampage, energized an international outcry against him.

In response to the report Monday, Religious Zionist MK Simcha Rothman asked Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to recall Waxman from Paris and fire all staffers who “acted against their legal obligations,” Israel National News reported.

“We cannot accept an unprecedented situation in which embassy employees are acting in a distinctly political manner while harming the government of Israel and its position in France and the world,” he wrote.

He said the incident requires a criminal investigation, “and at the very least a disciplinary one.”

MK Ohad Tal, also of Religious Zionism, likewise contacted Cohen and also demanded that the head of the mission be suspended with “severe measures” taken against any embassy staff found to have been involved in actions against Smotrich.

During his visit to Paris, Smotrich’s office reached out to multiple French counterparts for meetings and was turned down, a French official told The Times of Israel.

But he also reportedly sought meetings with Jewish community leaders. Senior Israeli government officials usually meet with members of the local Jewish community when traveling abroad in order to maintain and build ties with the Jewish State.

During the trip, Smotrich tweeted a picture of a meeting which he said included representatives from the CRIF umbrella group, the Central Consistory representing Orthodox communities, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency, and rabbinical leaders, among others. The minister said they met to discuss ties between Israel and French Jewish communities, challenges facing French Jews and the role of the state, and “strengthening aliyah [immigration] from France to Israel.”

Earlier reports said CRIF, the Central Consistory, and the Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU) had all refused meetings with Smotrich.

When last in Paris earlier this year, Smotrich attended a private memorial service where he declared that Palestinian people are “an invention,” drawing condemnation from France.

The stop in Paris followed a visit to the US in which the minister was similarly shunned by authorities and most Jewish groups, though The Times of Israel reported Monday that two prominent Jewish leaders quietly sat down with Smotrich for talks even as AIPAC and others refused.

Israeli government officials have also faced protests when traveling abroad over their support for the government’s judicial overhaul.

Protesters have been gathering weekly for nearly six months to express their determined opposition to the plans, which have been frozen since late March to allow for compromise talks between the Netanyahu coalition and the opposition.

While the government says the overhaul is needed to rein in what it sees as an over-intrusive judiciary, critics say it will sap the High Court of its ability to act as a check and balance to parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character.

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