WASHINGTON – Leading Israeli human rights organizations and activists are urging the United States to add far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, as well as activist Ben-Zion Gopstein, to its U.S. sanctions list for encouraging human rights violations and inciting terror.
The letter, addressed to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, comes as Prime Minister-in-waiting Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to offer the Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit leaders senior ministerial positions as he works to finalize his governing coalition.
According to the letter obtained by Haaretz, the far-right Israelis in question should be sanctioned in accordance with the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law intended to punish people around the world who are credibly accused of serious human rights violations by barring entry to the U.S. and the blocking of property.
More than 200 activists signed the letter alongside organizations including Combatants for Peace, Mothers Against Violence, Windows – Channels for Communication, Machsom Watch, Your Neighbor as Yourself and Looking the Occupation In the Eye.
The letter, penned by attorney Eitay Mack, argues that Smotrich - who is publicly angling for the Defense Ministry portfolio – has publicly incited genocide against the Palestinian people, according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’s definition.
They cite his previous comments over the past decade regarding his plans for Palestinians, in which he has advocated for population transfer, implicitly calling for the use of violence against Palestinians who fail to accept Israel as a sovereign power and citing biblical verses from the Book of Joshua that call for the extermination of enemies.
He further sought to lower penalties for Israelis behind the 2015 arson killing of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank (including of an 18-month-old toddler) while justifying the 2016 killing of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
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Regarding Ben-Gvir, who is angling for the public security portfolio (which notably includes overseeing the Temple Mount), the letter cites his role in the incitement leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and his leading role in the Kach movement, which the U.S. blacklisted as a foreign terrorist organization until this year. It still, however, remains a specially designated terror group.
The letter notes that Ben-Gvir has attempted to offer increasing nuance for both his support for Rabbi Meir Kahane and his beliefs on Arabs as his public profile has grown, trying to praise the late Jewish supremacist for his support of Jews rather than for his prejudice against Arabs.
He has similarly been intentionally ambiguous about his differentiation between “loyal and disloyal Arabs” and his plans for encouraging the “disloyal” ones to voluntarily emigrate, and what he would do to those who refuse.
Ben-Gvir’s attempts at a more moderate public image include removing a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish terrorist responsible for the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre where he killed 29 Muslim worshippers, from his wall after prominently displaying it for 26 years.
The activists also honed in on Ben-Zion Gopstein, a senior advisor to Ben-Gvir who was barred from running for parliament in 2019 over his extremism, who Ben-Gvir praised as “my friend, my love and fighter for the people of Israel and the land of Israel” following their electoral success.
Gopstein heads Lehava, a far-right organization aimed at preventing Arab assimilation that is the closest successor to Kach in Israel today. The letter's signatories compare Lehava to neo-Nazi movements who have advocated for complete racial segregation, some of whom with similar agendas already committing massacres and genocide.
The letter notes that Lehava activists have set fire and vandalized bilingual schools, while holding marches throughout Israel where they verbally and physically assault non-Jewish passersby.
They cite the indictment filed against Gopstein for incitement via a long series of well-documented calls for physical harm to be committed against non-Jews and non-Jewish religious institutions. The activists further highlight Lehava activists’ harassment targeting mixed couples, which was met with explicit condemnation from former President Reuven Rivlin.
“As detailed above, MK Smotrich seems to support genocide. Gopstein repeatedly incites terrorism and racism, and he is an important activist in Otzma Yehudit. While MK Ben-Gvir claims that he has changed, as described above in detail he continues to ‘play with fire,’ and his ongoing relationship with Gopstein and Lehava is a good example of the danger in him,” the letter reads.
The Biden administration is currently determining how to engage with a Netanyahu-led coalition where Smotrich and Ben-Gvir hold senior, security-oriented portfolios.
U.S. officials are currently debating the best way to approach this issue, acutely understanding the minefield that cooperation represents, several people familiar with the matter say. While a de facto no-contact policy, at the very least, is under consideration, it remains too early to tell what track the administration will pursue.
A State Department official said "we don't preview sanctions actions."