The Biden administration has granted a US visa to Israel’s extremist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, over the objection of Jewish American leaders who said he should be barred from the country for his call to “wipe out” a Palestinian town.
The US state department gave Smotrich a diplomatic visa to speak at an investment conference in Washington DC on Sunday, and for meetings with the International Monetary Fund, after concluding that it would be highly unusual to refuse one to a member of the government of a close ally. But the White House said no US officials will meet him or attend the conference.
More than 100 Jewish American leaders signed a statement opposing the visit by the leader of the Religious Zionism party in Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. It accused him of promoting “Jewish supremacy” along with anti-Arab racism and homophobia.
The signatories included three former US ambassadors to Israel, Jewish religious leaders and former heads of pro-Israel groups.
Dozens of Jewish American organisations have pledged to shun Smotrich while he is in the US, noting that he described himself as a “fascist homophobe”. They include the country’s largest Jewish organisation, the Union of Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Americans for Peace Now.
Their statement compared the minister to the American-born Israeli rabbi and convicted terrorist, Meir Kahane, who founded the extremist and racist political party, Kach.
“In 1984, when Meir Kahane was first elected to the Knesset, virtually all American Jewish organizations turned their backs on him and his violent and racist ideology and rhetoric. Now it is time for us to do the same for Bezalel Smotrich. American Jewish organizations must be clear: Smotrich has no place here,” they said.
Smotrich has been widely condemned for comments after a mob of several hundred religious Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank attacked the Palestinian town of Hawara nearly two weeks ago, burning dozens of buildings and cars and killing a man in what an Israeli military commander called a “pogrom”.
The attack on Hawara followed the shooting dead of two brothers from a nearby settlement earlier in the day which in turn came after the Israeli military killed Palestinian fighters and civilians in West Bank raids.
The Israeli finance minister criticised the settlers for taking matters into their own hands but said the military should act instead.
“I think the village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” he said shortly after the attack.
The US visa was issued after Smotrich apologised for the comments in a Facebook post on Wednesday. The minister said a friend in the Israeli air force had warned him that pilots were interpreting his remarks to mean that they might be ordered to destroy Hawara.
Smotrich said he was “shaken by the thought that this is how I could have been understood”.
The apology was met with scepticism by his critics who plan to demonstrate at the Washington hotel where he will be speaking at a conference to promote investment in Israeli government bonds.
The US state department described Smotrich’s remarks as “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting” but still granted him the visa.
The advocacy group Dawn, founded by the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East, said the Biden administration could have refused it on several grounds used to block visits by officials from other countries.
Dawn noted that in January, the state department restricted visas to “those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Nigeria” and to Cameroonian officials for “inciting violence, human rights violations and abuses”.
The US has also refused entry to other Israeli extremists including a member of the Knesset, Michael Ben Ari, in 2012, probably for his ties to the Kach movement.
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