Monday, May 20, 2024

Smotrich Challenge to Palestinian Legitimacy Sparks International Furor


Israeli Minister of Finance and chairman of the Religious Zionism Party Betzalel Smotrich sparked international controversy when he challenged the legitimacy of the current day Palestinian nation and cause, calling it in “an invention of the past 100 years.” Speaking at a private memorial service in Paris for prominent Likud activist Jacques Kupfer, who died in 2021, when Smotrich said that there was “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people,” his words were greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheers by his right-wing audience.

“Is there a Palestinian history or culture? No. There were Arabs in the Middle East who arrived in the Land of Israel at the same time as the Jewish immigration and the beginning of Zionism. After 2,000 years of exile, the people of Israel were returning home, and there were Arabs around [us] who do not like it. So what do they do? They invent a fictitious people in the Land of Israel and claim fictitious rights in the Land of Israel just to fight the Zionist movement.

“This is the historical truth. This is the biblical truth. The Arabs in the Land of Israel need to hear this truth. This truth should be heard here in the Élysée Palace,” Smotrich said, in reference to the official residence of French President Emmanuel Macron, who declined to meet with the Israeli Finance Minister during his trip to France.

“This truth should also be heard by the Jewish people in Israel who are a little confused. This truth needs to be heard in the White House in Washington. The whole world needs to hear this truth because it is the truth — and the truth will win,” Smotrich declared.


Smotrich also rhetorically asked his audience, “Do you know who are the Palestinians?” Answering his own question, He proudly declared, “I’m Palestinian!” He then explained that his grandmother had been born in the northern Israeli town of Metula 100 years ago and that his grandfather could trace his Jewish ancestors who had lived in Yerushalayim for 13 generations, as proof that Jews were always the “real Palestinians,” as opposed to the Arabs who first staked their false claimed to the title and territory out of hatred and jealousy only after the founding of Israel in 1948.

Aware that his audience would likely eventually extend far beyond that room in Paris, Smotrich also offered some advice to the Arabs living in Israel today: “Stop spitting into the well [they] are drinking from.”

“Israel is a miracle, Israel’s economy is a miracle. Contrary to the lies leaders of the [BDS boycott] campaign are spreading against us in the world, we are spreading good to all the residents of Israel, Jews and non-Jews. Look around, in all 22 [Muslim-majority] countries. Is there another country where [people live] such a good life? A modern country with a developing economy, with freedom of religion, freedom of expression… There is no country like [Israel] in the world. Stop fighting Israel and the people of Israel. You will lose and we will win because Hakadosh Boruch Hu is with us,” Smotrich said.

Predictably, Mohammad Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), said that Smotrich’s challenge to the historical legitimacy of the Palestinian movement were “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist, Zionist ideology that governs the current Israeli government.”

The PA prime minister told a meeting of his cabinet in Ramallah that, “These inflammatory statements, which are consistent with the first Zionist claims of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land,’ and that Palestinian lands are ‘disputed,’ demonstrate the arrogance of power. . .

“Israel is a colonial state established by the colonialists and settlers, and it expanded like other settler colonialism throughout history,” Shtayyeh said, while repeating the oft-repeated Arab lie that, “that all archaeological remnants and history prove the attachment of the Palestinian to his land since the dawn of human and human history.”


The truth about the history of the local Arab population is much less inspiring. During the centuries following Churban Bayis Sheni, the land of Israel was governed by a succession of foreign powers ranging from the Byzantine (Eastern) Branch of the Roman Empire to the militant founders of Islam, to Christian Crusaders from Europe, to the Mamluks, and finally, through World War I, to the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, a relatively small number of Arabs who maintained a poor, subsistence existence in the mostly barren land of Israel made no effort to govern themselves or establish a uniquely identifiable national culture of their own.

On the other hand, a number of relatively small Jewish communities in Yerushalayim, Tzfas, Chevron, and elsewhere successfully maintained a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisroel despite the recurring oppression and religious persecution of its rulers. With charitable donations and more migration from Jews in communities across Europe, the Old Yishuv in Eretz Yisroel began to grow more quickly by the mid-19th century, followed, at the turn of the 20th century, by an influx of mostly secular Zionist settlers fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.

The ancestors of most of the Arabs who today call themselves Palestinians were migrant laborers from countries across the region who were attracted by the increased economic opportunities created by the influx of Jews. But before Israel was established in 1948, those “Palestinian” Arabs and their leaders showed little or no interest in creating their own independent, self-governing state of their own. Starting in 1929, a few years after the British took over, the primary Arab political activity consisted of staging a recurring series of deadly riots targeting Jews to prevent the Zionists from achieving those same objectives that the local Arabs did not want for themselves.


More to the point, the Palestinian Arab leadership and the other Arab states in the region repeatedly rejected international efforts, beginning with the recommendations of the British Royal Peel Commission in 1936, as well as the United Nations partition plan proposed in 1947, to create earlier versions of the two-state solution which would have divided the territory under the Palestinian Mandate into two independent Arab and Jewish-majority states. Instead, the consistent Arab response to such proposals was to reject any peaceful solution which would have established a permanent Jewish presence, and to launch renewed attacks on the territory’s Jewish population with the expressed goal of killing or driving them all out of the land.

Tellingly, when Israel’s War of Independence ended leaving Gaza and the West Bank still under Arab military control, there was no effort at the time to place that territory under the control of a government made up of the local Arabs living there. Instead, the West Bank was annexed by the Kingdom of Jordan, and Gaza remained under Egyptian military control.

Seventy-five years after the international community’s acceptance of the establishment of Israel as an independent state, the Palestinian leadership still refuses to publicly accept its legitimacy.


Nevertheless, the Biden administration, which is still committed to reviving the hopeless Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution, was quick to echo the Palestinian criticism of Smotrich for exposing their big lie. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters “The Palestinians have a rich history and culture, and the United States greatly values our partnership with the Palestinian people.”

Patel also recalled President Biden’s statement when he briefly visited the PA-ruled city of Bais Lechem last summer that “the U.S. remains committed to two states for two people, both of whom have deep ancient roots in the land, living side-by-side in peace and security.”

But Smotrich was not intimidated by the criticism, nor did he issue a retraction, at least in part because he was not the first Israeli government leader to expose the Palestinian cause as a big lie. National Missions Minister Orit Struck, a fellow member of the Religious Zionist party, pointed out that then-Prime Minister Golda Meir publicly said much the same thing several times more than half a century ago. “He took it straight from Golda Meir,” Struck said. If a Palestinian people did not exist in the 1970s, then “I don’t see how they were born at some point between the 1970s and now.”

For example, in a 1970 interview with Thames TV, Prime Minister Meir said: “When were Palestinians born? What was all of this area before the First World War when Britain got the Mandate over Palestine? What was Palestine, then? Palestine was then the area between the Mediterranean and the Iraqian border. East and West Bank was Palestine. I am a Palestinian, and from 1921 and 1948, I carried a Palestinian passport. There was no such thing in this area as Jews, and Arabs, and Palestinians, There were Jews and Arabs. . . I don’t say there are no Palestinians, but I say there is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people.”

Struck added, “There is no Palestinian people, that is just a historical fact,” while noting that historically Israel was built on territory that had, according to Tanach, been ruled by Jews thousands of years ago.


Those viewing a video of Smotrich’s speech that was made available on-line could also see that he was standing on a podium alongside a map of the region which had a right-wing Zionist message of its own. It erased Israel’s current eastern border at the Jordan River and included all of the present-day Kingdom of Jordan into what it identified as “Greater Israel.” The map was a reminder of the historic fact that the state now known as Jordan had been part of the original territory which was assigned to Britain by the League of Nations after the end of World War I. Under a plan proposed by then-British Colonial Minister Winston Churchill, the area to the east of the river known as Trans-Jordan was split off in 1922 from the rest of Britain’s Palestine Mandate, which was meant to serve as a future Jewish national homeland, in accordance with the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration adopted by the British government.

In addition to criticizing the words in Smotrich’s speech, State Department spokesman Patel singled out that map for criticism. “The latest comments by Mr. Smotrich, which were delivered at a podium adorned with an inaccurate and provocative map, are offensive, they are deeply concerning, and, candidly, they’re dangerous.”

“We underscore the importance of the U.S. strategic relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the second Arab state to take the courageous step of making peace with Israel. And we welcome Israel’s reaffirmation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan,” Patel said.

Unable to resist the temptation to make yet another pitch for the two-state solution, the State Department spokesman added, “We also affirmed that two states along the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps remain the best way to achieve equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom and democracy for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations was also quick to respond to Smotrich’s criticism, claiming that, “there very clearly and distinctly is a Palestinian people. Their rights are upheld by the United Nations. There are Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that refer to the Palestinians and we continue to support their rights and to push for a two-state solution that will result in two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also called upon the Israeli government to disavow Smotrich’s remarks. “I have to deplore these unacceptable comments by Minister Smotrich. It is wrong, it is disrespectful, it is dangerous, it is counter-productive to say this kind of things in a situation which is already tense,” the EU diplomat said.


More understandably, the government of Jordan took deep offense not only to the map but also to Smotrich’s words denying the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. Jordan’s foreign ministry called Smotrich’s Paris appearance a “reckless incitement and a violation of international norms and the Jordanian Peace Treaty.” It said that his statements were racist and extremist that incited “against the brotherly Palestinian people, their right to exist, and their historical right to an independent and sovereign state on Palestinian national soil.” It also said that Smotrich’s conduct “represents a dangerous escalation that threatens security and stability,” and called on the Israeli government to condemn Smotrich’s statements.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry was quick to respond by assuring the Jordanian government of its full support. It issued a statement in both Hebrew and English which declared, “Israel is committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. There has been no change in the position of the State of Israel, which recognizes the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom.” But the Israeli foreign ministry’s statement made no comment on Smotrich’s attack on the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause.

Israel’s National Security Adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, also personally reached out to Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi confirming that this was Israel’s position. Hanegbi later said, “I assured him of the commitment the Government of Israel has to uphold the peace treaty between our two countries which has strengthened the stability and the security of our region for nearly 30 years.”

A spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry said that Smotrich’s “inflammatory and unacceptable” comments “deny the facts of history and geography, while fueling feelings of anger among Palestinian people and other peoples of the free world.” The spokesman also said that the statement might undermine a high-level meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials taking place at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, whose goal was to restore calm and security cooperation between the two sides before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was the second of three such meetings co-sponsored by the United States, Jordan, and Egypt. The first meeting was held in February in Aqaba, Jordan, and the third meeting is expected sometime in April.

Cairo called Smotrich’s remarks racist and said they “deny the facts of history and geography, while fueling feelings of anger among Palestinian people and other peoples of the free world.”


A few weeks earlier, on March 1, Smotrich also triggered harsh international criticism for saying that the Arab-populated West Bank village of Hawara should be “wiped out,” because it had just been the scene of a deadly Palestinian terror attack that killed two young Israeli brothers, 21-year-old Hallel Yaniv and 19-year-old Yagel, Hy”d, from the town of Har Bracha.

Smotrich made that provocative comment a few days before he was scheduled to fly to the United States to speak at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Bonds organization in order to encourage them to continue their investments in the Israeli economy. Some secular American Jewish leaders were so outraged by that remark that they publicly called upon the U.S. government to cancel Smotrich’s entry visa.

While the U.S. State Department condemned Smotrich’s remarks as “repugnant” and “disgusting,” and the French government used them as an excuse to refuse to meet with him during his visit to Paris, Smotrich’s visit to the U.S. went off as planned. But as several hundred demonstrators protested outside the Israel Bonds event, Smotrich offered an apology for his controversial remark, and combined it with a pledge to carry out his duty as a government minister to “protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.” He also claimed that what he had meant to do was call for the Israeli army to “wipe out” the terrorists in Hawara responsible for the murder of the two brothers, but not the entire population of the village.

These kinds of incidents did not come as a total surprise, because Smotrich had long been known for his outspoken criticism of the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, and his skepticism about the loyalty of Israel’s Arab residents. In 2021, he said that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, should have “finished the job” and kicked all of the Arabs out of the country during the War of Independence in 1948, instead of inviting them to stay and become Israeli citizens.

The West Bank settler movement has been the main voter base for Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, and its predecessor parties that represented the Mizrachi movement. It was therefore not surprising that after his party helped Netanyahu to win a stable governing majority in last November’s Knesset election, one of Smotrich’s main demands in his party’s coalition agreement was the creation of a new government post which gives him a significant part of the Defense Ministry’s administrative authority over civil affairs in Area C, the Jewish-populated and controlled areas which make up 60% of the West Bank’s territory.


Smotrich has made it clear that he intends to use that new authority to strengthen and expand the West Bank settlements, and make them permanently part of Israel by placing them under central government control rather than the current military administration. As a result, his provocative recent public comments about the legitimacy of Arab claims to the West Bank are of far more than just theoretical significance.

His provocative statements, coming from a senior minister of the Netanyahu government, challenging the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, also elicited sharp criticism from the Persian Gulf oil states who make up the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which include the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020.

After a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the six foreign ministers of the GCC states wrote a joint letter of protest to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in which they “condemned the racist statements of the Israeli Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, which called for the destruction of what remains of the Palestinian village of Hawara,” which had been attacked by local Jewish settlers, who burned dozens of homes and vehicles, and left one Palestinian Arab dead, in retaliation for the murder of the two Israeli Yaniv brothers.

For good measure, the foreign ministers’ letter also blasted Israel for “repeated incursions by Israeli settlers into the courtyards of the Holy Al Aqsa Mosque”; continued West Bank settlement construction; military raids to root out terrorists operating in the West Bank; the Israeli Supreme Court-approved expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Yerushalayim; and “attempts to change [the] legal character, demographic composition, and arrangements for Islamic holy places.”

The UAE has also “strongly” condemned a Knesset vote to roll back legislation it had passed that ordered the 2005 evacuation of four isolated northern West Bank Jewish settlements, at the same time that the Israeli army forcibly expelled all of the Jewish residents of Gaza and dismantled their homes and communities. That reaction forced Netanyahu to clarify that the Knesset vote was a symbolic act and that his government has no current intentions to set up a new settlement in that part of the West Bank.


The UAE statement also rejected “all practices that violate resolutions on international legitimacy and threaten to further exacerbate escalation and instability in the region.” To emphasize the point, UAE President, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan also dispatched to Israel Khaldoon Al Mubarak, a longtime member of his Executive Council, to personally tell Prime Minister Netanyahu that, “The direction of [his] government goes completely against the Abraham Accords.” He was also quoted as telling Netanyahu that “Your situation doesn’t look good and it could impact our investments” in Israel.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to make his first official visit to the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in January, but Al Nahyan canceled the trip after Netanyahu’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, made a public visit to the Har Habayis, which the UAE denounced as a “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.”

But while the UAE and other Arab states that now have relatively cordial relations with Israel were clearly embarrassed and upset by Smotrich’s statements, Moran Zaga, expert on the Gulf region at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, noted that their “criticism is directed at Smotrich personally. That means that Gulf leaders are wary of statements against Netanyahu and against Israel,” and leaves the diplomatic door wide open for reconciliation once Arab tempers over the words and actions by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir die down.



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