Smotrich insists no concessions to Palestinians in exchange for ties with Saudis

Far-right minister also calls Biden administration ‘hypocrites’ for criticizing Ben Gvir over controversial remarks: ‘No one can lecture us on morality or human rights’

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Monday that Israel will not make concessions to the Palestinians as part of any normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, as has been demanded by Riyadh and Washington as part of a potential agreement.

“We will not make any concessions to the Palestinians. It’s a fiction,” Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, told Army Radio.

Smotrich said that while Israel is interested in the US-brokered deal with Riyadh, “it has nothing to do with Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Smotrich is a staunch opponent of the establishment of a Palestinian state and sees his control of the Civil Administration, which he holds as part of his additional ministerial role in the Defense Ministry, as a means of extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank through replacing the military administration of the territory with direct control by the central government and its ministries.

Last week, it was reported that Smotrich was hastily pushing through a plan to expand West Bank settlements and legalize dozens of outposts, in the wake of a series of deadly terror attacks.

Smotrich also slammed the US as “hypocrites” after the Biden administration condemned National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir for stating that Jews’ right to travel and live safely in the West Bank was more important than Arabs’ freedom of movement.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir near the scene where one person died and a few were injured in a rockslide in Ein Gedi nature reserve, near the Dead Sea, on August 24, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Smotrich backed his far-right colleague, telling Army Radio that “there is no country more moral than Israel and anyone in the world who attacks us is a hypocrite.”

“I’m not even talking about the Americans — what they did in Afghanistan or in Iraq. They can’t lecture us about morality or human rights. That is the greatest hypocrisy,” Smotrich said.

Speaking on Thursday, a US State Department spokesperson condemned Ben Gvir’s remarks as inflammatory.

Smotrich’s Monday comments came days after the US reportedly warned Israel that it will have to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians to secure a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer that Israel is “misreading the situation” if it does not believe significant gestures to the Palestinians are necessary to assuage the Saudis, who he said will need to demonstrate tangible results to other Arab and Muslim countries if they are to make a deal with Israel.

Dermer offered little in terms of gestures for the Palestinians during the meetings, saying Israel’s concession is its agreement to Saudi Arabia’s development of a civilian nuclear program, according to the report.

File: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, August 17, 2023. (Secretary of State Blinken, via Twitter)

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has reportedly decided to become involved in the process in an attempt to reap as many rewards as possible under any potential agreement, rather than boycott it as it did in previous normalization efforts.

A delegation of senior Palestinian officials is set to travel to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks to discuss the demands Riyadh is set to make of Israel as part of a potential normalization agreement, according to a Channel 13 news report Sunday.

Senior Israeli officials understand the Saudi requirements pertaining to Israeli concessions to Palestinians will be at the heart of the visit, the network said.

Without citing a source, the report added that Israeli leadership, previously hoping to reach an accord with the Saudis without significant steps toward the Palestinians, is beginning to understand that this will not be so, and that the American and Saudi pressure on the matter is more than lip service.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Eli Cohen have both indicated that Israel is open to gestures to the Palestinians if a normalization deal depended on it.

Netanyahu views normalization with Riyadh as a key foreign policy goal and one that could cement his legacy. But the prospect of Israel’s current government approving any material concessions to Palestinians is far from certain, with Netanyahu’s far-right allies, upon which his coalition depends, highly unlikely to accept such measures.

File: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Some commentators have floated the possibility of the premier seeking to ditch his hardline partners if a deal were on the table, in favor of a more centrist coalition with current opposition parties — though this also seems a remote possibility given the intense animosity between the sides.

Still, Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinian issue will not stop a deal.

“Do I think it’s feasible to have that, and do I think that political questions will block it? I doubt it,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg earlier this month. “If there’s political will, there will be a political way to achieve normalization and a formal peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“I think there’s enough room to discuss possibilities,” he added.

Riyadh’s demand for a green light from Washington to develop a nuclear program is part of the broader US-Saudi talks that could cement a deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh. In exchange for establishing relations with the Jewish state, the Saudis are also believed to be seeking access to advanced American defense technology and a defense alliance with the US.

For its side of the deal, the Washington is seeking a reverse of the Saudis’ economic and military ties with China and Russia and a bolstering of the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

The New York Times reported in July that with Saudi leadership expressing an increased willingness to reach a deal on normalization with Israel, the US has launched a “full-bore effort” on the matter.

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