US Embassy keeps Ben Gvir, Smotrich off July 4 party guest list

Spokesperson says invitees are those with whom embassy ‘has a close working relationship,’ as Washington continues to keep far-right ministers at arm’s length

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The United States embassy in Israel declined to invite two far-right ministers to its upcoming Independence Day party.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich were not on the list for the US Independence Day Reception at the Israel Museum on the evening of the July 3, the Haaretz daily reported on Monday.

The US embassy would not confirm the report.

“The guest list for the Embassy’s 2023 Independence Day event includes people with whom the Embassy has a close working relationship,” an embassy spokesperson told The Times of Israel in a statement. “Security concerns preclude us from publicly sharing the guest list for this event or any logistical details.”

A spokesperson for Smotrich confirmed to The Times of Israel that he was not invited and would not be attending.

Smotrich “wishes Mazal Tov to our biggest ally and friend the United States,” his office said. “The minister will use the time of the ceremony to continue advancing Israel’s independence, development, and prosperity across our land.”

Left to right: President Isaac Herzog, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a 4th of July event at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, July 5, 2022. (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

Senior Israeli diplomats and officials attend the annual event. Last year, President Isaac Herzog and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett showed up, as did a range of Knesset members and foreign ambassadors.

Washington has been openly critical of Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, and Religious Zionism party chief Smotrich.

Last month, the State Department expressed deep misgivings about Ben Gvir’s “provocative” visit to the Temple Mount, chiding the Israeli hardliner for using “inflammatory rhetoric” and politicizing the holy site.

A previous visit by Ben Gvir shortly after he took office in January drew widespread condemnation from the Arab world and some pushback from the US.

The White House has expressed alarm recently over the sway the right wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has over policy, especially settlements and judicial reform. Last week, three Biden administration officials acknowledged to The Times of Israel that Washington is not convinced the longtime Likud leader is in control.

A neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Eli overlooking a nearby Palestinian village, January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The administration has avoided engaging with Ben Gvir and Smotrich. The finance minister could play a key role in boosting the cash-strapped PA, a cause the US sees as central to its interests. For the past six months, though, Smotrich has withheld tens of millions of dollars from Ramallah over welfare payments the latter makes to terrorists and their families.

And last week, the State Department said that it was “deeply troubled” by a pair of Israeli moves aimed at significantly advancing settlement construction in the West Bank, which Washington branded as an “obstacle to peace.” Earlier that same day, Smotrich announced that the Defense Ministry body in charge of authorizing settlement construction had released its agenda for meetings in which it will advance plans for 4,560 new settlement homes.

The Biden administration also weighed denying Smotrich a visa to enter the US in March after he called for Israel to “wipe out” a Palestinian village after two Israeli brothers were killed by terrorists there, but relented once Smotrich apologized.

US officials did not meet with Smotrich, nor did over 120 American Jewish leaders and over 70 organizations.

In January, a delegation of US senators visiting Israel asked not to meet with Smotrich and Ben Gvir or any members of their factions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said early in the Netanyahu government’s tenure that the US would gauge it by its policies rather than its personalities. Other Biden officials, such as Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, have said their main interlocutor in Jerusalem will be Netanyahu and they will be holding him directly responsible for the moves of his far-right partners.

Jacob Magid and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report. 

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