Netanyahu: Remarks to erase Palestinian town ‘inappropriate’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Sunday March 5, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via AP)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said the remarks by a key Cabinet ally calling for a Palestinian town to be erased were inappropriate, after the United States demanded that he reject the statement.

In a Twitter thread posted in English shortly after midnight, Netanyahu did not appear to condemn the remarks outright and implied that the ally, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, misspoke.

Netanyahu thanked Smotrich for later walking the comments back and “making clear that his choice of words” was “inappropriate.” The bulk of the thread urged the international community to seek condemnations from the Palestinians over attacks against Israelis.

It appeared to be his first public response to Smotrich’s remarks since they were made on Wednesday.

Netanyahu’s Twitter thread underlines how the Israeli leader has had to balance the ideologies of the far-right members of his government with the expectations of Israel’s chief ally, the United States. Smotrich is the head of one of several ultranationalist parties that help make up Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most right-wing ever.

Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank last week rampaged through the Palestinian town of Hawara, where earlier in the day two Israeli brothers were killed in a Palestinian shooting attack. Later in the week, Smotrich said the town should be erased — by Israeli forces and not by private citizens.

Smotrich later backtracked, saying he didn’t mean for the Hawara to be erased but for Israel to operate surgically within it against Palestinian militants. Still, his earlier comments sparked an international outcry. The U.S. called them repugnant and urged Netanyahu to “publicly and clearly reject and disavow them.” The United Nations and Middle East powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia also condemned Smotrich’s remarks.

In a Hebrew tweet posted around the same time as his English thread, Netanyahu said even foreign diplomats make mistakes, an apparent reference to a report by Israeli Channel 12 that U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides made disparaging remarks about Smotrich ahead of his visit to Washington this week, saying he would “throw him off the plane,” if he could. The U.S. Embassy denied the ambassador had made the remarks.

The White House said Smotrich would not be meeting any U.S. government officials during the upcoming trip.

Smotrich, in a tweet Saturday, said he was “convinced that he didn’t mean to incite to kill me when he said I must be thrown from the plane just as I didn’t mean to harm innocents when I said Hawara must be erased.”

In his tweets, Netanyahu wrote that “it is important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric” amid a spiraling wave of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

“That includes speaking out forcefully against inappropriate statements and even correcting our own statements when we misspeak or when our words are taken out of context,” he posted.

Netanyahu then slammed the Palestinian Authority for not condemning Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and the international community for not demanding condemnations from the Palestinians.

Israel has long claimed the international community has a double standard in its expectations from Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their future state. Israel maintains a 55-year, open-ended occupation over Palestinians in the West Bank and a blockade, along with Egypt, of the Gaza Strip.

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