On February 26, dozens of local Jewish residents entered the Arab nest of murderers Huwara after two Jewish brothers had been killed there and torched homes and local businesses. When asked about it in a public forum, Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he’d like to see Huwara wiped out. Whatever he meant by it, his response became the focal point of outraged condemnations from the Biden administration and the EU. Smotrich later tried to explain he wasn’t talking about the ethnic cleansing of Huwara, or whatever other imageries the words “wipe out Huwara” may bring to mind, he only meant that the storefronts on either side of Huwara’s main drag should be sealed so that Jewish motorists won’t be shot at with such ease. Nobody was listening.
I checked the “Controversies” section on Smotrich’s Wikipedia page. It is 1,100 words long. The earliest notation recalls that “in July 2015, Smotrich caused controversy by declaring in a Knesset Interior meeting that developers in Israel should not have to sell homes to Arabs.” A thousand words later appears the note: “After the 2023 Huwara rampage on February 26, 2023, Smotrich said, on March 1, ‘I believe that the village of Huwara should be wiped out. I believe that the state of Israel should do so and not, God forbid, ordinary individuals.’”
Those two notes, with all the unappealing controversies in-between, will stay there, to be used lavishly in every media report on Smotrich in the foreseeable future. I can explain every single one of them, and you, the reader, probably could, too. Many of them make sense, some not really, and all of them could be avoided because they make Smotrich a less effective leader.
On Wednesday, Bezalel Smotrich issued a very lengthy statement sharing his feelings about the Huwara statement in “an open letter to Israeli citizens, Air Force pilots, and IDF soldiers and commanders.” Having read it, I’m not so sure it was necessary, and I’m even less sure it helped change minds. Smotrich has hoof and mouth disease that no amount of sincere explanations, certainly not apologies, can cure. The cure, as always in Smotrich’s case, is to let his gifted staff edit his statements and to never, ever issue spontaneous statements. But, trust me, just as his enemies don’t give a hoot about his real intentions, Smotrich won’t stop providing them with ammunition. It’s in his DNA.
Now, I spent a good hour translating Smotrich’s very long note of explanation and apology because I believe in him as a good leader and I certainly endorsed everything he mentioned. But as you go down this carefully translated note of apology, do ask yourself if anyone it addresses on the other side will bother to read it. If you believe some will, you are less cynical than me.
Here we go:
“I started the morning in shock. And it gives me many thoughts that I want to share with you,” Smotrich opened his very lengthy explanation. Extremely lengthy. Wildly and unnecessary explanation.
“I have a friend, a senior-ranking Air Force reserve pilot, who reflected for me the feeling that my statement evoked in his fellow aircrew members after the horrible murder of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv H’yd, the statement’s contribution to the pilots’ protest.
“It took me a while to understand what the connection was and what he wanted from me. He explained to me that some of the pilots took my statement to be a call for the Air Force to ‘delete’ the village and its inhabitants from the air. Such an intention on the part of a senior minister and a member of the political and defense cabinet, together with what they understand to be the granting of unlimited power to the elected government as a result of the judicial reform, made them truly anxious, because, in their opinion, it could lead to giving such an obviously illegal order to the Air Force in the future, and of course, they are not ready to take part in that.
“Hence, according to his words based on the internal discourse in the Air Force, the cry of the fighter pilots reached for some of them the point of taking the serious and dangerous step of extroverted absence from operational training.
“According to this friend of mine, and I trust him one hundred percent, this is not some cynical, campaign-oriented excuse of the pilots as part of the opposition to the reform, but a deep and real concern that led them to do what they did.
“The truth is that I’m quite shocked. When left-wing elements in the media in Israel created a storm out of these things, I did not attach any importance to it. I saw this as the continuation of their false and biased campaign against the right-wing government and me. I have been living this false demonization that has been done to me for years, and I don’t allow myself to be affected by it. When political and media figures overseas made use of my statement and attributed to it intentions that did not exist to attack me and the government, I similarly attributed it to hypocrisy and the continuation of the blackening campaign that I have been enduring for years. In the case of certain elements, it is clear to me that this is even part of the BDS campaign against the State of Israel, which is operating in an impossible reality against a murderous terror machine from within a civilian population and against a civilian population, and does so while maintaining moral and legal principles that no other country in the world would have been able to do. With others, I attributed it to a lack of understanding and familiarity with me by those who only meet me through the media’s false blackening campaign against me.
“I assumed that if someone can attribute to me a call for the indiscriminate killing of women and children it only originates in his fevered mind and he doesn’t really believe it either and is pushing it on purpose to hurt me.
“But when it comes from good, smart, serious, and dedicated people, who devote their best years to Israel’s security, and when I hear that such serious people attribute such terrible intentions to me in all seriousness, I can no longer absolve myself by blaming others. I am required to take stock. […]
“Until the conversation this morning, I really did not imagine that anyone serious could understand my words as a call for the indiscriminate killing of women and children in the village.
“Then I got it. Pilots who handle machines of destruction with tremendous firepower like a fighter jet are constantly engaged in this tension. They study it, talk about it and live it day by day, hour by hour. Whenever they put on the flight suit, get on the plane, and go into action in enemy territory, just before they press the stick and release the bomb, they live the dilemma between the just and moral and critical goal for the security of the country they were sent to accomplish and the collateral damage that may occur. In professional legal terms, it’s called ‘proportionality,’ in life this word takes the form of life and death. This is a dilemma that only those who hold in their hands a tremendous responsibility for human life and carve out destinies with the push of a button can probably understand. And blessed is the nation whose sons they are, who live this moral tension. Their hearts are not calloused about it, and they guard it with all vigilance even after decades of service and countless operations.”
I must interrupt Bezalel Smotrich’s poetic depiction to remind you of the phrase that almost kept Air Force Commander Dan Halutz, from becoming IDF chief of staff. In July 2002, after the Air Force had killed 14 civilians, including children, in Gaza, Halutz told a Haaretz interviewer: “If you insist on knowing what I feel when I release a bomb, then I’ll tell you: I feel a slight bump on the wing as a result of the release of the bomb. A second later it’s over, and that’s it. That’s what I feel.”
But do go on, Bezalel.
“As someone who didn’t get to serve in combat service, I only know this tension from a theoretical level […] I can only imagine what that tension looks like in reality – from the air, sea, or land – when you hold in your hand a mighty weapon such as a fighter jet, tank, or other war machines.
“And here I reach two insights: the first concerns how much we don’t know each other. How much foreignness and alienation there is between the different parts of Israeli society. We are so close and yet so far. So close in the practical partnership in the Zionist enterprise, our national revival enterprise: we study together, serve together, work together, and build the country together. And so far apart in our lack of familiarity with each other’s values and worldviews.
“For years I’ve struggled to understand the gap between the image I have in certain parts of the nation and who I really am. I know myself. The house I grew up in, the values I bring with me from home, from the environment I grew up in, and from the Torah I studied. I know how much light and goodness and justice and morality and love of man and nation there is in all of these, yet I rub my eyes in front of the black figure that often stares at me from the media’s mirror. I can blame it on the media all I want, but it doesn’t change the result.
“And if there’s a huge gap between who I am and how I am perceived ‘on the other side,’ to the extent that I can be described as calling for the murder of women and children, who knows what gap there is between how I often perceive people or the statements of parties on the other side and who and what they really are?! Maybe I’m making the same mistake? […]
“The second insight relates to Avtalion’s statement in Tractate Avot: ‘Avtalion used to say, Sages be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be carried off to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who follow you drink and die, and thus the name of heaven becomes profaned.’
“To what greater extent must I, who live in a world of certain concepts and do not imagine at all that it is possible to understand from my words that Huwara should be wiped out with its inhabitants, must take into account how my statements can be received by people like our heroic pilots, who do not know me, and for whom these concepts are not something theoretical, just words intended to transmit a message of a demand for a sharp response, but something taken from the real world, alive and very sensitive that they deal with every day and every hour.
“So, after I failed in this responsibility, and believe me I am still shaken by the thought that this is how I could have been understood, it is important for me, first of all, to apologize to the IDF and its commanders, with an emphasis on the Air Force personnel, if I had a part in breaking the trust that is so important between the IDF, as an army of the people, to the elected echelon. And now I must say things I thought I would never have to say:
“The IDF is the people’s army and has a clear value and moral framework. Generations of soldiers and commanders are educated in light of that framework. This framework is important because it gathers around it all the soldiers, commanders, and fighters, who come from different parts of the nation.
“These are the necessary values for maintaining a basic contract between the state and those who are willing to give their lives for it and use the most lethal weapons for it.
“This contract is simple and written in the blood of many warriors. The side of the fighters is simple but also the most extreme that can be – they are willing to give their lives to protect the country. The state, for its part, undertakes not to subject them to plainly illegal orders, the kind that have a black flag flying over them.
“As a senior minister, as a cabinet member, I abided in the past, abide in the present, and will continue to abide by this code in the future. It is the basis of our cohesion.
“Together with the other members of the cabinet, who constitute a variety of voices, balancing and challenging each other, I will continue to support the uncompromising integrity and professionalism of the IDF and its commanders in the processes of exercising its power.
“I fulfilled and with God’s help will continue to fulfill my side of the contract! About your end, there’s no need to talk. You abided and you are abiding by it since the establishment of the State of Israel, including yesterday in the Jenin refugee camp.
“I appreciate you.
Good luck, Bezalel, honestly, you’re a wise and decisive leader, and I voted for you. But next time you feel the urge to say something you know you’ll regret as soon as it leaves your lips – eat something instead. I understand the peaches are back. Have a peach.