Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on early Sunday welcomed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s retraction of the “inappropriate” remark that Israel should “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, clarifying that Jerusalem’s policy is to avoid collective punishment.
Smotrich’s comment, made on Wednesday and walked back Saturday as a “slip of the tongue” made in a “storm of emotions,” has caused an international uproar and put the top minister’s expected trip to the United States next week in question.
The developments came after extremist settlers rampaged through Huwara at the beginning of the week and set homes and cars on fire, resulting in one Palestinian shot dead and several badly hurt, in response to the terror murder of Israeli brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv in a Palestinian shooting attack in the Nablus-area town hours earlier.
“It is important that Finance Minister Smotrich clarified that he had no intention [of referring to] harming innocent people or collective punishment,” Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew. “I know his opinions and they were reflected in his clarification.
“None of us is free of mistakes, including foreign diplomats,” Netanyahu added, in a thinly veiled swipe at US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. This followed a report by Channel 12 news — firmly denied to The Times of Israel by his spokesperson — that Nides had said to an Israeli official regarding Smotrich, “If I could, I’d throw him off the plane to Washington,” when the finance minister heads to the US to attend an Israel Bonds conference.
Netanyahu added that “Israel’s policy is clear: to fight terrorists and terror supporters while avoiding harming innocents and collective punishment.”
He noted that the Palestinian Authority hadn’t yet condemned the deadly terror attack that preceded the Huwara riot.
“It is regrettable that some in the international community have been quick to condemn Israel but haven’t yet demanded this necessary condemnation from the PA,” the premier concluded.
In a follow-up series of tweets in English, Netanyahu made similar points — minus the swipe at Nides — but also called Smotrich’s original remarks “inappropriate” and said it was “important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric” and “lower the temperature.”
That is why I want to thank Minister Bezalel Smootrich for making clear that his choice of words regarding the vigilante attacks on Harrawa following the murder of the Yaniv brothers was inappropriate and that he is strongly opposed to intentionally harming innocent civilians
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 4, 2023
At a conference on Wednesday, Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said he thinks “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it” and that “God forbid,” the job shouldn’t be done by private citizens: “We shouldn’t be dragged into anarchy in which civilians take the law into their own hands.”
His comments drew fierce condemnation within Israel and around the world, with the US calling the remarks “repugnant” and “disgusting” and the UN saying they were “provocative, inflammatory and just unacceptable.” Similar condemnations rolled in from Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others.
On Saturday evening, Smotrich told Channel 12 that his “word choice was wrong, but the intention was very clear” — that Israeli security forces must be on the offensive in the war against terror.
“It was a slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions,” he said, despite making the comments three days after settlers rampaged through the town hours after two Israeli brothers were killed in a terror attack there. It “goes without saying” that he did not intend to call for violence of any kind, Smotrich claimed.
Smotrich refused to refer to the actions of the settlers as terror.
He said the rampage was “a very serious nationalist crime, but not terror,” also calling Huwara a “village that is beset by terror.”
Later on Saturday night, Smotrich tweeted a response to Nides’ reported comment about him: “I’m not angry and I’m convinced that he didn’t intend to incite my killing by saying I should be thrown off the plane, just like I didn’t mean harming innocents when I said Huwara should be wiped out. People sometimes use strong expressions that they don’t mean literally, to convey a blunt message. It happens to everyone.”
Nides’ office has denied the envoy ever made the comment.
Meanwhile, officials have said the White House has been holding discussions on whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa for his upcoming US trip — but have indicated they are unlikely to block his visit.
The White House said Thursday that US government officials would not be meeting with Smotrich during his visit.
The Biden administration has held discussions on whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa to enter the US after he called to “wipe out” a Palestinian town, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.
The official confirmed a Channel 12 report Saturday night revealing the discussions, but insisted that no decision has been made.
A second source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the US is unlikely to actually bar Smotrich’s entry. The source noted that the White House was unlikely to have announced on Thursday that US government officials would not meet with Smotrich when he’s in town had the administration intended to take the step of refusing him a visa.
Channel 12 said the US was weighing Smotrich’s entry in light of his remarks potentially constituting incitement to violence and the encouragement of war crimes.
The TV station quoted an American source saying it would be better if Smotrich “saves himself embarrassment” and announces that he’s canceling his March 12-14 trip.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday denounced Smotrich’s remarks. “These comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant. They were disgusting,” he said. “Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.”
When Smotrich visited the UK last year, the Board of Deputies Jewish umbrella group issued an unusually biting condemnation of an Israeli politician, rejecting his “abominable views” and calling on “all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.