Israel’s ultranationalist finance minister has claimed there is “no such thing” as Palestinians in a speech in Paris that drew angry condemnation from Palestinian leaders.
Speaking on the same day Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Egypt in an effort to de-escalate spiralling tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Bezalel Smotrich claimed the Palestinian people were an “invention” from the 20th century.
“Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There isn’t,” he said at an event on Sunday night, adding that his words needed to be heard in the White House and the Élysée Palace. “There is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, on Monday condemned Smotrich’s comments — made from a lectern decorated with what appeared to be a map of Israel that included the occupied West Bank and parts of Jordan — as “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology that governs the current Israeli government”.
Smotrich’s remarks, which came as the hardline government made small changes to its plans for a judicial overhaul that has roiled Israeli politics, are the latest in a string of incendiary comments he has made about Palestinians.
Last month, he said Israel should “wipe out” Huwara, a Palestinian town in the West Bank that was the scene of a rampage by Jewish settlers, who torched buildings and cars after a Palestinian gunman shot dead two Israelis.
Those comments sparked widespread outrage, with the US saying they were “irresponsible”, “repugnant” and “disgusting”, and amounted to “incitement to violence”. Smotrich — a far-right settler and self-described “proud homophobe” who supports Israeli annexation of the West Bank — subsequently expressed regret that his comments had created a “mistaken impression”.
Smotrich’s latest intervention comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government — widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history — is struggling to deal with surging violence in the West Bank and huge street protests against its planned judicial changes.
Mass protests against the plans, which would severely weaken the checks on the government, have continued for two months, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis joining the latest demonstrations on Saturday. Protesters are planning a further “day of paralysis” on Thursday.
Late on Sunday, Netanyahu’s coalition of rightwing, ultrareligious and ultranationalist groups said they would slightly soften plans to change the rules on appointing judges — one of the key elements of the overhaul — and put other proposed changes on hold until later in April.
The move is the first concession that the government has made since detailing its plans in January. However, opposition politicians dismissed the proposed amendments as cosmetic, and said they would file a petition against them with Israel’s top court.
“This is not a compromise, this is a hostile political takeover of the judicial system. This is what we warned against,” Yair Lapid, head of the largest opposition party Yesh Atid, wrote on Twitter.
Under the new proposal, the ruling coalition would have a 6-5 majority on the panel that appoints judges, and would be able to use this majority to appoint two Supreme Court judges per parliamentary term.
If more than two appointments were required in the same parliamentary term, the majority supporting them would have to feature non-coalition members of the panel — including an opposition lawmaker and a judge.
Source: Financial Times