To put it plainly, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is out of touch with reality.
In recent days, he has called for the emigration of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents and the rebuilding of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005.
Smotrich’s foolhardy recommendations have been seconded by his sidekick, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They now have the dubious distinction of being the only ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far right-wing cabinet to endorse such drastic and disastrous policies.
Their comments should be placed in the proper perspective.
The Israeli government is under pressure to devise a sound and sensible plan for the day after the end of the current Israel-Hamas war. The United States, Israel’s ally, has repeatedly urged it to present its vision of Gaza’s future. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is due to arrive in Israel shortly, is expected to discuss this issue with Israeli leaders.
This much is clear. Once Hamas’ military infrastructure has been destroyed and its leadership has been removed from power, Gaza cannot be left rudderless and in limbo. In short, Israel cannot leave a dangerous vacuum in Gaza for hostile elements to exploit.
As Netanyahu has suggested, Israel will accept responsibility for Gaza’s security until long-term political and military arrangements are firmly in place. Whatever the scenario may be, Gaza must be demilitarized, deradicalized and normalized so that Israel no longer faces an implacable enemy on its doorstep that seeks its destruction.
Israel must also work to ensure that no bottlenecks hamper the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza’s population, which has paid a heavy price for Hamas’ egregious misrule for the past two decades. Thanks to Hamas, Palestinian civilians have been exposed to homelessness, hunger, deprivation, disease and death.
Even as the Israeli armed forces continue to rid Gaza of Hamas and the assortment of armed groups aligned with it, what is lamentably clear is that Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, and Ben-Gvir, the head of the Jewish Power Party, are operating in an alternate universe.
As far as they are concerned, Israel should resume its military and civilian occupation of Gaza, from which Israel evacuated 21 settlements and repatriated 8,000 settlers 19 years ago.
Smotrich is in favor of “completely changing the reality” in Gaza. As he put it recently, “We need to rule there for a long time … If we want to be there militarily, we need to be there in a civilian fashion.” And he added, “I don’t think there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t want to see Jewish settlements everywhere.”
Doubling down on his thesis, he argued that a small country like Israel “cannot afford a reality where four minutes away from our communities there is a hotbed of hatred and terrorism, where two million people wake up every morning with the aspiration for (Israel’s) destruction and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews.”
Smotrich, of course, was alluding to the unprecedented atrocities of October 7, when 3,000 blood-thirsty Hamas terrorists broke through the border fence and attacked towns, kibbutzim and army bases in southern Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, sexually abusing women and girls, abducting some 240 hostages, and burning residential buildings.
His fears are understandable, but Israel cannot tame Gaza by reoccupying it and resurrecting settlements there. Judging by surveys, and contrary to Smotrich’s supposition, the majority of Israelis oppose the resettling of Gaza.
What is required instead is a viable agreement, backed by key Arab states and the major powers, that holds out the prospect of a two-state solution one day in the distance. Israel needs to forge a fair and equitable agreement with a reasonable and reliable Palestinian partner that accepts its existence and legitimacy unreservedly and is ready to stamp out terrorism and revamp its educational system.
A revitalized Palestinian Authority, with a new president and a fresh set of ministers, may yet step in to negotiate a lasting accord with Israel.
A viable agreement, if one can be reached, would ensure that Israel’s security needs are met and that the Palestinians are granted sovereignty and independence within a demilitarized state in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian statehood would not be granted at once, but phased in incrementally over a number of years.
Smotrich, an extremist, rejects this vision with every fibre of his being. In his opinion, the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank will have to settle for a limited form of autonomy, while the Palestinians in Gaza must be resettled abroad.
Without the slightest proof, he claims that more than 70 percent of Israelis back his proposal to eject the Palestinians from Gaza, and incredibly enough, he thinks it is a “humanitarian solution.” What Israel must do is “to find countries willing to take them in,” he says.
Smotrich’s scheme is utterly unrealistic for at least three reasons.
Virtually every Palestinian in Gaza vociferously opposes it, as does the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian Authority. Having lost homes and properties during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Palestinians have no intention whatsoever of relinquishing yet more land to Israel and creating another nakba.
Israel’s greatest friend, the United States, has not and will not accept the notion that Palestinians can be displaced in what would amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The same is true for every member state of the United Nations. Israel simply cannot afford to flout and alienate international public opinion. It is a recipe for disaster.
Arab nations from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates would most probably sever formal diplomatic relations with Israel if Smotrich’s plan is seriously considered by the Israeli government. It would totally isolate Israel in the region, create a new and more toxic layer of anti-Israel hatred, and strengthen hostile countries and organizations like Iran and Hezbollah.
At least three members of Netanyahu’s government already realize that Smotrich’s ideas are foolish and counter-productive.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant unveiled his postwar vision of Gaza a couple of days ago, and it excludes the possibility of Israeli civilians living in that coastal enclave.
Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar dismissed Smotrich’s misbegotten plan as “not remotely realistic.”
Minister-Without Portfolio Yifat Shasha-Biton accused Smotrich and Ben-Gvir of “causing damage” to Israel. “I think (they) do not understand the magnitude of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders,” she said in a blistering critique.
Netanyahu has remained conspicuously silent in the face of Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s unacceptable pronouncements. His deafening silence is not an option.
Netanyahu should speak up and denounce both of them. Neither Smotrich nor Ben-Gvir should be allowed to labor under the illusion that their ideas are acceptable to the Israeli government, or Israelis.