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Netanyahu tries to calm outcry over minister's remarks on Palestinians

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought on Sunday to soften international outcry over a call by a far-right member of his cabinet for a flashpoint Palestinian village to be "erased", saying those remarks had been "inappropriate".

But Netanyahu also pushed back against censure of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, accusing foreign powers of playing down Palestinian violence like the Feb. 26 killing of two Israeli brothers in Huwara village that sparked a settler rampage there.

Smotrich said last week that while he opposed vigilantism, he believed "that Huwara needs to be erased" by Israel.

The U.S. State Department called the comments "irresponsible," "repugnant" and "disgusting" and said Netanyahu should reject and disavow them.

The U.N. human rights chief said Smotrich had made "an unfathomable statement of incitement to violence".

With Israeli media speculating that Smotrich, who is due to visit Washington next week, would be snubbed by the U.S. administration and complicate its ties to the Netanyahu government, he offered a retraction on Saturday but no apology.

"Being upset, I misspoke," Smotrich told Channel 12 TV.

The Palestinians have urged the U.S. administration not to receive Smotrich. Netanyahu has said that he - and not coalition partners like Smotrich - calls the shots on Israeli diplomacy.

"It is important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric, lower the temperature," Netanyahu tweeted on Sunday, thanking Smotrich "for making clear that his choice of words ... was inappropriate".

"I am still waiting to hear a condemnation from the Palestinian Authority for the murder of the Yaniv brothers," Netanyahu added. "And Israel is waiting for the international community to insist that the PA condemn that attack. Not only has it not done so, it continues to turn a blind eye to the PA's rampant incitement."

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price tweeted: "Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn Finance Minister Smotrich's provocative remarks that also amount to incitement of violence. It is imperative that Palestinians and Israelis work together to restore calm."

At least 62 Palestinians, including gunmen and civilians, have been killed since the start of 2023, the Palestinian health ministry said. Thirteen Israelis and a Ukrainian tourist died in Palestinian attacks in the same period, according to Israel.

The brothers killed in Huwara were from a nearby Jewish settlement, a community the Palestinians consider interlopers on occupied West Bank land that they want for a future state. Most world powers deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this.

Hours after the brothers were shot in their car by a gunman who fled the scene, settlers rioted in Huwara. A Palestinian man was shot dead, dozens of others were wounded and houses and cars were set ablaze. Israel has arrested 10 suspects in the rampage.

Smotrich is slated to appear at a March 12 meeting of Israel Bonds, whose website says the event will also feature a "high-level U.S. Government speaker". That speaker is not named.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bernadette Baum)