Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said his call earlier this week to “wipe out” the West Bank town of Huwara was a “slip of the tongue” made in “a storm of emotions.”
Meanwhile, officials say the White House has been holding discussions on whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa for an upcoming US trip — but indicate they are unlikely to block his visit.
Speaking to Channel 12 news on Saturday evening, Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said 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 extremist settlers who rampaged through the Nablus-area town and set homes and cars on fire, resulting in one Palestinian shot dead and several badly hurt, 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.”
At a conference on Wednesday, Smotrich said that 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.
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, which he is making at the invitation of Israel Bonds.
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.”
In the Channel 12 interview on Saturday, Smotrich said he has been the subject of a “demonization” campaign in Israel and around the world for years, and accused media figures of calling on US and other international officials not to sit down with him.
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.”