Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s visit to Washington next week to speak at an Israel Bonds conference was still scheduled to take place amid outcry over his call to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, but the White House said Thursday that US government officials would not be meeting with him.
A day earlier, Smotrich said during a panel discussion that he thinks “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out” and that “the State of Israel should do it,” sparking immediate outcry from opposition lawmakers along with US and Palestinian officials. The comments came amid an outpouring of shock and horror in Israel and abroad after hundreds of settlers ransacked the Palestinian town of Huwara and surrounding villages Sunday night, setting dozens of buildings and vehicles on fire, in revenge for a terror attack in which Israeli brothers driving through the town were gunned down hours earlier. One Palestinian man was killed and hundreds more were injured during the rampage, which Israel’s top general in the West Bank referred to as a “pogrom.”
Israel Bonds was resisting calls to rescind its invitation to Smotrich, and his appearance at the group’s annual conference taking place from March 12 to 14 was still slated to go forward, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Thursday. A spokesman for Smotrich similarly confirmed that the minister was still planning to make the trip.
Israel Bonds did issue its first public statement since Smotrich’s Wednesday remarks but it did not directly refer to the minister or his slated conference appearance.
It said that Israel Bonds “has always maintained a focus on one core mission: to generate financial support through the sale of Israel bonds for the building and development of Israel’s economy without regard to politics.”
“We are a nonpartisan financial organization, which sells Israel bonds issued by the State of Israel through its Finance Ministry. As part of their long-established responsibilities, Israel’s finance ministers from across the political spectrum have historically, over Israel Bonds’ 72-year history, attended our events. One of the organization’s most unique and paramount attributes is that it remains unbiased with regard to any political party or affiliation, enabling all to show unwavering support for the wellbeing of Israel and its people, through investments in Israel bonds,” the group added.
Meanwhile, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement Thursday that “no US government meetings are planned for [Smotrich’s] trip.
A handful of liberal Jewish groups have called on the Biden administration to deny Smotrich a visa to get into the country.
Asked during a Thursday press briefing whether the US would take that step, State Department spokesman Ned Price responded, “We don’t speak to individual visa records nor as a general matter to a particular individual’s eligibility for a US visa.”
“Nevertheless, we’ll continue to make clear that we reject the comments from the minister, just as we did yesterday,” he said.
“We appreciate the condemnations that we’ve heard from our Israeli partners,” Price added. A day earlier the State Department spokesperson had called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials to publicly repudiate Smotrich’s remarks.
As of Thursday night, only Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog had done so, telling CNN, “it is absolutely not Israeli policy and it’s against our values to respond by wiping out civilian villages.”
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan issued statements on Thursday condemning Smotrich.
Guterres’s spokesperson called the minister’s remark “provocative, inflammatory and just unacceptable.”
“On top of that, coming from a government official, it’s irresponsible… [and] inconsistent with any UN resolution,” the spokesperson said, reiterating Guterres’s call for all sides to refrain from “incitement, inflammatory rhetoric and all acts of provocation, particularly amid these current tensions and spiraling violence.”
The UAE Foreign Ministry blasted Smotrich’s “racist comments and affirmed its “rejection of all practices and behaviors that contradict moral and human values and principles.”
The statement said that the UAE ministry “underscored the need to confront hate speech and violence and noted the importance of strengthening the values of tolerance and human coexistence in efforts to reduce escalation and instability in the region.”
Jordan’s Foreign Ministry called Smotrich’s remarks “incendiary” and said they represent a “violation of international law.”
The remarks about Huwara, made at a conference hosted by The Marker business daily Wednesday, came after Smotrich was asked why he had “liked” a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called “to wipe out the village of Huwara today” on Sunday evening.
“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied.
He added “God forbid,” that the job should not be done by private citizens. He condemned the rampage, saying, “We shouldn’t be dragged into anarchy in which civilians take the law into their own hands.”
Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of the body that authorizes settlement construction and demolition of Palestinian homes in much of the West Bank, including large parts of Huwara.
As condemnations poured in, Smotrich issued a statement saying the media was trying to “create a distorted interpretation” of his remarks. He claimed Huwara is a “hostile village” where residents throw stones and shoot at Israelis every day and that he supports a “disproportionate response” by the IDF against the town for every act of terrorism in order to establish deterrence.
He appeared to have deleted the clarification tweet but later in the day wrote, “so there isn’t any doubt, I did not mean wipe out the village of Huwara, rather act in a targeted manner against the terrorists and supporters of terrorism living there and to exact a heavy price from them in order to restore security to the [Jewish] residents of the area.”