US senator says Biden working to limit Smotrich and Ben Gvir influence in next gov’t

White House has been subtle in expressing concern over far-right’s rise, but Democrat close to president says administration working behind the scenes to push back

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden speaks with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., as they walk on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One on Nov. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
US President Joe Biden speaks with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., as they walk on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One on Nov. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

A Democratic US senator on Thursday said the Biden administration has been working to try to limit the influence far-right lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir will have in the expected next Israeli government.

While the White House has sought to be more subtle and tight-lipped about its discomfort with the rise of the Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit party leaders, Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who is seen to have a close relationship with US President Joe Biden, described Washington’s concerns more bluntly.

He revealed that the administration is not waiting until prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is sworn in to begin acting.

“I know that the Biden administration is in the process of doing everything they can to try to limit the potential for damage of the inclusion of these extremist elements within the governing coalition,” Van Hollen said, referencing Ben Gvir and Smotrich by name in remarks to the University of Maryland’s annual Sadat Forum.

The Biden administration has refrained from commenting publicly on Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who are both expected to become ministers in the next government.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, the day after Netanyahu’s bloc won a majority in the November 1 election, only said that the US “hope[s] that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”

Price blasted as “abhorrent” a memorial service for the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane which Ben Gvir attended a week later, but did not specifically comment on the Otzma Yehudit leader.

In coalition negotiations, Netanyahu has agreed to give Ben Gvir the new role of national security minister, with authority over the Israel Police and the Border Police’s West Bank division.

Smotrich will be named finance minister and another member of his party will receive a ministerial role within the Defense Ministry who will have authority over a pair of bodies that authorize settlement building, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and oversee many of the day-to-day affairs for Palestinians in 60 percent of the West Bank.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich seen during an elections campaign event of Otzma Yehudit party in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Smotrich had initially pushed to be named defense minister, which sparked concern in Washington due to his support for annexation, collapsing the Palestinian Authority, blocking a Palestinian state and preventing Palestinians in the West Bank from obtaining equal rights. He also has expressed antagonistic views toward Arab Israelis and LGBTQ individuals.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides met with Netanyahu earlier this month, and while he did not mention Smotrich and Ben Gvir by name, he did hint at the Biden administration’s concern with the pair receiving roles with authority to set Israeli policy over the Palestinians, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Nides appeared to downplay the notion that he sought to intervene in the Israeli government formation process, telling Channel 12 during a Thursday interview, “I can’t tell Bibi Netanyahu what to do.”

“We will work with whoever the prime minister puts in that job,” Nides said of the defense minister, a position that was easier for him to take now that Netanyahu has declared that the position will be held by a member of his own party.

As for Ben Gvir, Nides refused to rule out meeting with him, despite Ben Gvir’s longheld views in favor of deporting “disloyal” Arab Israelis, imposing the death penalty on terror convicts, easing the IDF’s open-fire rules against Palestinians and allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

“I’m not going to get into who we’ll meet with and who [we won’t],” Nides told Channel 12, while also reiterating that the Biden administration wants to preserve chances for a two-state solution and keep the current status quo on Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount under which Jews may visit but not pray as Muslims can.

File: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US embassy in Israel)

Commenting on Ben Gvir and Smotrich, Van Hollen claimed Netanyahu himself had previously refused to include them in his governments. While that may have been the case for Ben Gvir, who Netanyahu said last year was unfit to be a minister, it does not appear to be true with regard to Smotrich, who was transportation minister in the Likud leader’s last coalition.

Van Hollen opened his response to the question on the recent Israeli election results by describing himself as a “longtime friend and supporter of the US-Israel relationship.”

The 63-year-old served seven terms in the US House of Representatives and was recently re-elected to a second term in the US Senate earlier this month. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he regularly comments on international affairs, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has long been endorsed by the dovish Middle East lobby J Street.

“I do think the United States is going to need to be very clear that we will be calling out human rights abuses when we see them because we will lose our credibility if we simply call out human rights abuses when we’re dealing with our enemies or adversaries,” he said.

“We’re going to have to see exactly how all of this unfolds, but I do think that the Biden administration is and certainly needs to be giving a lot of thought to how we’re going to proceed, depending on what actions are taken, because the United States should not be a party to any further efforts to solidify, crack down or make worse the occupation in the West Bank,” he said.

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