Israeli minister’s comments draw Arab, EU condemnation

Bezalel Smotrich stirred controversy on Sunday when he said there was 'no such thing' as the Palestinian people

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi. EPA
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Israel has come under a barrage of Arab and European criticism after its finance minister denied the existence of the Palestinian people.

It was the latest controversy involving members of the ultra-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which came to power in December and took what Palestinian and Jordanian officials describe as provocative actions aimed at undermining the two-state solution.

“There are no Palestinians, because there isn't a Palestinian people,” Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich said on Sunday.

He was speaking at a memorial service in Paris attended by members of France's Jewish community He spoke from behind a flag depicting expanded Israeli borders that incorporated Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

In early January, days after Mr Netanyahu's government took office, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, another hardline Israeli official, entered the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, in action seen widely seen in the Middle East as provocative.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi said on Tuesday that Mr Smotrich's remarks and the optics of his speech were provocative and "exclusionary".

Mr Al Safadi said the actions "will not undermine us, nor the rights of the Palestinian people".

"The right of existence of the Palestinian people is not cancelled by extremists' statements," Mr Al Safadi said. He called for the revival of the two-state solution to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994.

"Killing the two-state solution will ingrain racial separation [in Palestine] and lead to more tension," Mr Al Safadi said.

An official source told Reuters that Israel's national security advisor had called Mr Safadi to assure him that Israel respected his country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Mr Safadi said his government could adopt further steps if Israel repeated such provocations, but did not elaborate.

Israel's Foreign Ministry wrote on Twitter: "Israel is committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. There has been no change in the position of the State of Israel, which recognizes the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom."

Jordan was stepping up a diplomatic campaign to pressure Israel to lift heavy-handed security measures during the fasting month of Ramadan beginning later this week, Safadi said.

The comments by Mr Smotrich prompted Jordan on Monday to summon Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Eitan Sorkis, to receive a rebuke.

The UAE has also condemned the speech.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation said the UAE “rejected the incitement rhetoric and all practices that contradict moral and human values ​​and principles”.

Oman also issued a "total rejection" of Mr Smotrich's "irresponsible and provocative" comments.

On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Mr Smoprtich's remarks conterproductive, especiallu in the situation which is already very tense".

"Could you Imagine if a Palestinian leader would say that the Israeli state doesn’t exist," he said. "What would have been the reaction?”.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said ahead of a cabinet meeting on Monday the "inflammatory statements" made by Mr Smotrich provided "conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology... of the current Israeli government".

Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to recognise and sign a peace treaty with Israel, condemned the "inflammatory and unacceptable" as well as "racist" remarks, Cairo's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Updated: March 21, 2023, 5:53 PM