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Israel-Palestine: Smotrich is not alone. The West needs to take a stand

Why is such a racist and dangerous politician being invited to give speeches in states that claim to support human rights?
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a meeting at the Knesset on 20 March 2023 (AFP)

A few days ago, the finance minister of Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East”, told an audience in Paris that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people”. He made a serious effort to portray this claim as reasonable and convincing. 

Speaking at a memorial service for a late Likud activist, he stood at a podium adorned with a map based on the crest of an extremist Zionist militia, which not only ignores the existence of Palestinians but also annexes parts of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Smotrich’s statements and the fact that he stood by this map of a “Greater Israel” have increased diplomatic tensions with Jordan. Media channels covered the incident as if it was somehow surprising or new, while various diplomats indicated their shock.

Personally, I was stunned to see such strange reactions. For what about this is really surprising?

This is not the first time that Smotrich has issued such violent and racist statements.

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Years ago, he was accused of plotting a terrorist attack - charges he has denied. He also has a long history of racist and dangerous statements, including that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, “didn’t finish the job” in 1948. He said this as a warning to Arab Knesset members in 2021. 

Those who claim to care about human rights must do more than issue weak statements of condemnation

Ben-Gurion’s “work” in this regard was the expulsion of all Palestinians from their homeland during the Nakba in 1948. Smotrich apparently believes this crime of expulsion should be continued.

After the recent pogrom carried out by settlers in Huwwara a few weeks ago, he said the village should be “wiped out”. 

Smotrich is quite clear and frank. This is his ideology. His political programme is replete with racism and violence towards Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

Settler-colonial project

So, why is such a racist and dangerous politician being invited to give speeches in states that claim to be democratic and to support human rights?

Why are “democratic” western states still dealing with the current Israeli government, which is giving a platform to people like Smotrich, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and their ilk?

Why is Israel allowed to be overtly racist and to use terror as a weapon against Palestinians?

It is important to remember that Smotrich is not alone, having won a significant share of votes in last year’s election. And he is not the only Israeli politician who thinks and says that Palestinians do not exist. After the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, other politicians expressed similar sentiments, although in different terms.

Palestinian protesters step on posters of Smotrich, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in January 2023 (AFP)
Palestinian protesters step on posters of Smotrich, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in January 2023 (AFP)

As the “historic” deal was cemented between Israel and parts of the Arab world, some Jewish Knesset members concluded that there was no more need for peace with Palestinians and that there was a place for only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Indeed, the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people is not coming only from the extreme-right branches of the Zionist movement. This has been the premise of Zionism as a settler-colonial project since it was established in the late 19th century.

Britain, which issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, still celebrates this crime today. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who led the Zionist left for years, has also denied the existence of the Palestinian people.

Empty condemnations

The Zionist movement that established Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine has been denying the existence of the Palestinian people and their rights in their homeland since it started its settler-colonial project.

There is no need to be shocked or surprised at this reality, and empty public condemnations do nothing to help Palestinians.

Israel’s Smotrich: 'There's no such thing as Palestinians'
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In terms of promoting human rights, what would be really helpful would be for other nations to stop dealing with Israel, deeming it a state that operates outside of international law.

Racism is ugly in all its different manifestations, whether against Jews, Palestinians, or any other group.

Smotrich is racist and dangerous, but he is not alone. Voters elected him to public office, and he is accepted by other Knesset members. He heads the most important ministry in the Israeli government, the finance ministry. He is invited to speak to different audiences in western “democracies”. In this way, they are not helping to stop his dangerous agenda, but rather enabling his growth as a legitimate player on the international stage. 

Those who claim to care about human rights must do more than issue weak statements of condemnation. They must stop allowing Israel to be immune from consequences, and take real action to curb the influence of these dangerous political figures, just as they have done in other parts of the world. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Sami Abu Shehadeh is a Palestinian historian and a former member of the Israeli Knesset. He is the leader of the Balad, or Tajamou', party.
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