The Provocative Mr Smotrich – OpEd


The political stance, words and actions of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich are not, I admit, to my taste.  Yet, without justifying them, I find two provocative incidents in which he was recently involved worthy of comment.

On Sunday, March 19, he participated in a gala evening in Paris, organized by “Israel is Forever,” a French Jewish association close to the far right.   When he rose to speak, he stood behind a lectern displaying a flag depicting a greatly expanded Israel which included the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and most of Jordan.

That alone, without taking into account what he said, sparked immediate protests across the Arab world, and a diplomatic incident between Israel and Jordan. Smotrich’s spokesperson claimed that the flag was “set decoration” arranged by the conference organizers, and that Smotrich was only a guest. All the same, next day Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador to Amman to protest Smotrich endorsing the map. Jordan’s foreign ministry warned that Smotrich’s actions violated the Jordanian-Israel peace treaty. Israel’s foreign ministry responded by asserting that it fully recognized Jordan’s territorial integrity and stood by the treaty. Later Tzachi Hanegbi, head of Israel’s National Security Council, spoke with Jordan’s Foreign Minister to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the treaty.

Two wrongs do not make a right, but it is perhaps worth pointing out that leading Palestinian organizations do precisely the same, in reverse.  Examine the flags of Fatah or bodies like the Palestine Liberation Front, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Islamic Jihad movement, and they all feature maps of Mandate Palestine as a solid unit, with no sign of Israel. They portray their desired outcome to the Arab-Israel dispute, namely a Palestine “from the river to the sea”. Protests at this denial of the legitimacy of the State of Israel have been notable by their absence.

Smotrich caused outrage, also, by his remarks denying the existence of a Palestinian people.  He maintained that the idea of Palestinian nationhood was invented in the past century in response to the Zionist movement to found modern-day Israel.

“Who was the first Palestinian king?” he asked, rhetorically.  “What language do the Palestinians have?  Was there ever a Palestinian currency? Is there a Palestinian history or culture? Nothing. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

The following day US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby objected to the comments, saying they would not help to calm tensions in the region.

“We utterly object to that kind of language,” he said.  “We don’t want to see any rhetoric, any action or rhetoric – quite frankly – that can stand in the way or become an obstacle to a viable two-state solution, and language like that does.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, called Smotrich’s remarks “racist,” and “an attempt to falsify history.”

The term “Palestinian”, though perfectly valid and comprehensible in contemporary terms, carries with it a whiff of political controversy.  Those sensitive to it point to the 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution 181.  In proposing the partition of Palestine into two states, it describes them as “independent Arab and Jewish States”. The term “Palestinian” does not appear. In fact this is scarcely surprising since, until Israel’s Declaration of Independence, all the inhabitants of the land were Palestinians.  In the 1930s the country’s radio station was called the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), while its English-language newspaper did not change its name from “The Palestine Post” to “The Jerusalem Post” until as late as 1950.

This is why people of Smotrich’s persuasion describe the current emphasis on Palestinian identity and nationalism as a recent phenomenon. The argument has some validity. Both historically and in more recent times, the Arabs living in the area were regarded both by outsiders and by their own spokespeople as without a separate or distinct identity.  

Yasser Arafat, for example, regarded as the father of the “Palestinian people”, followed a pan-Arab line. The 1964 PLO charter defined the Arab inhabitants of Palestine as “an integral part of the Arab nation”.  In 1996 Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said: “Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state. In the past there was no independent Palestinian state…This land is the property of all Muslims.”  

In 2002 Azmi Bishara, founder of the nationalist Balad Party, which had seats in the last Knesset but not in the current one, said: “My Palestinian identity never precedes my Arab identity…. I don’t think there is a Palestinian nation, there is [only] an Arab nation…. “

Today it is clear that the concept of Palestinian nationalism, having emerged, has flourished and become a political reality.  It has in fact overtaken the views of Arab leaders, expressed only comparatively recently, which have been submerged in the tidal wave of Palestinian nationalism.  Nowadays the Palestinian leadership downplay pan-Arab nationalism and exploit what has taken its place.  

It is precisely because Smotrich and other far-right politicians refuse to recognize political realities that, perhaps to their surprise, they engender such controversy.  Extremists in any field – political, religious, social – are so convinced of the justice of their cause that they reject the very concept of compromise, and feel justified in forcing what they believe to be the only correct course on others, regardless of what others think or feel.

Steam-rollering extremist ideologies, without regard to the effect on the beliefs or aspirations of others, is not acceptable in a 21st century democracy. Persuasion is the correct way, and if persuasion fails, then acceptance of the best compromise available.  Beliefs, however strongly held, are not ipso facto self-evident or immutable.  A little humility can go a long way. 

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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