Mr. Smotrich Goes to Washington

By | Mar 06, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. An Unwelcome Visit with the Worst Possible Timing

Barring a last-minute cancellation, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich will arrive Sunday for his first visit to the United States since joining Netanyahu’s government. Smotrich will attend the Israel Bonds annual meeting in Washington, DC, before heading to New York.

In a move that raised some eyebrows among Israeli diplomats in DC, Smotrich, who had begun planning his trip several weeks ago, did not request any meetings with members of the Biden administration—not even with professional staff at the Treasury Department. Smotrich may thus have spared himself and the administration the awkwardness of having to haggle over scheduling and eventually being turned down by an administration reluctant to have anything to do with the leader of Israel’s far-right Religious Zionist Party.

Last week, Smotrich spoke out following a terror attack in which two Israeli settlers were gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist and a pogrom was carried out by settlers in the nearby West Bank village of Huwara. In that attack, which occurred on Sunday, February 29, a Palestinian civilian was killed, one hundred Palestinians were injured and dozens of homes and cars were torched by a Jewish mob.

“I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich said on Wednesday. It was not a hot mic incident, a slip of the tongue or an unconfirmed leak from a closed-door conversation. Smotrich made his outrageous comment on stage, on camera, for the entire world to hear.

The remark triggered wall-to-wall condemnation, even from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called out the “inappropriate statement” by his finance minister.

Smotrich then tried to clarify his comments, stating that he had not called for erasing the Palestinian village, but merely for “exacting a heavy price from them to restore security to the residents of the area.”

2. A Not-So-Subtle Message from Washington

Speaking from the podium during his daily press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price described Smotrich’s comments as “irresponsible,” “repugnant” and “disgusting.” The State Department also made it clear that it expected Netanyahu to disavow his cabinet member’s remarks.

This public expression of dismay over Smotrich’s comments only exacerbates already existing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over the Israeli government’s plans for a judicial reform that will undermine the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court.

But what about Smotrich’s upcoming visit to Washington?

According to news reports, U.S. officials made it clear to their Israeli counterparts that it would be good for all sides if Smotrich canceled his visit.

As of now, there are no signs of Smotrich doing so. There’s also no indication that the United States is planning to deprive him of a diplomatic entry visa. It is safe to guess, however, that both sides are considering these options.

The organizers behind his trip have insisted that Smotrich is still a welcome guest at their gala. In a statement, a representative of Israel Bonds (or the Development Corporation for Israel, its official name) said it is a nonpartisan financial organization and that “Israel’s finance ministers from across the political spectrum have historically, over Israel Bonds’ 72-year history, attended our events.”

3. The Unofficial Blacklist

Smotrich’s scheduled visit to Washington has put to the test a question the Biden administration has been trying to avoid ever since the new Israeli government was sworn in: Will American officials engage with all members of Netanyahu government or only with some, and if only some, who are those on the do-not-meet list?

The answer has become increasingly clear, even if American officials have managed not to name names openly: Members of the Biden administration want nothing to do with Smotrich, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, or with any members of their parties. 

So, who’s on the welcome list?

Remember Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington who was seen as the mastermind behind Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress that caused a major rift with President Obama and the Democratic Party? Pundits and advisers referred to him as “practically persona non grata” in Democratic administration circles and warned that no Democratic president could ever deal with Dermer.

But that’s so 2015. Dermer of 2023 is very much grata as far as the Biden administration is concerned. 

Now serving as minister of strategic affairs in Netanyahu’s government, Dermer is Israel’s point of contact for all things regarding U.S.-Israel relations. He’s already been to Washington once and met with top administration officials, and this week he’s coming again, with all doors at the White House and State Department wide open.

That Dermer—once the poster child for Israeli blindness to American political sensitivities and for short-term partisanship over long-lasting relations with both parties—has become a welcome guest is sheer irony. But it’s also an indication of how relations have shifted so dramatically so quickly, making Dermer the moderate voice in an Israeli government that otherwise fails to produce many acceptable partners for advancing relations with the United States.

4. Could this Be the American Jewish Community’s Turning Point?

American Jews (at least most of them) have been following with dread the rapidly unfolding events in Israel. 

Reform rabbis have been leading the way in calling congregants to speak out against the new government in Jerusalem. In a rare move, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took to the stage on February 26 at the weekly Saturday night anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, addressing in Hebrew a crowd of tens of thousands of Israelis and pledging the support of American Jews in their battle to block Netanyahu’s attempts to weaken Israel’s judiciary.

Others have been speaking out from the pulpit, signing letters and calling on their members of Congress to take action. Left-leaning political groups, led by J Street, have been trying to turn the American Jewish unease with Israel’s actions into political action aimed at pushing Congress and the administration to take a stand.

But so far, solidarity protests across the United States have been led by Israeli expats, with only a few American Jews joining several dozen protesters in most cases.

Now, both Israeli-American and Jewish-American groups are gearing up for what they expect to be a bigger show of force to protest Smotrich’s visit to Washington.

This, they believe, could be a galvanizing moment that will turn the scattered protests into a movement—one that will be noticed both in Israel and in decision-making circles in America.

5. Meanwhile on the Other Side

To be clear, there is another side.

While supporters of anti-government protests in Israel believe they represent the majority of American Jews (and they likely do, though no polling or specific data exists on this topic), there are those in the Jewish conservative camp who not only back Netanyahu but who are also willing to fight for his right to overhaul Israel’s judiciary system.

Some of them gathered Friday at the CPAC convention in National Harbor, Maryland.

On the main stage at the conference of the conservative branch of the Republican Party sat Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Center for Middle East and International Law at George Mason University, and Josh Hammer of Newsweek, both trying to make the case in favor of the Israeli government’s moves. Hammer argued that the Supreme Court in Israel is selected by “liberal secular elites,” which, in his opinion, is “a total travesty.” He compared Netanyahu’s struggle in Israel with that of Donald Trump’s with the legal system in the United States. 

In Kontorovich’s view, Israel’s judiciary is controlled by the “deep state,” allowing the Supreme Court to rule against policies of the government based on a “true higher secret constitution that only they are privy to.”

He called on the crowd of conservative activists to speak out for Netanyahu and in support of his moves. “It’s important for you to talk to your senators; it’s important for American activists to be loudly heard in Israel as saying: If you have political selection of judges, we’re still going to be friends with you.”

Opening Image Credit: APK via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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