Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday disciplined a junior member of his cabinet who appeared to voice openness to the idea of Israel carrying out a nuclear strike on Gaza, where the war with Hamas is inflicting a spiralling Palestinian civilian toll.
Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that the minister concerned – Heritage Minister Amihay Eliyahu, from a far-right party in the coalition government – had been suspended from cabinet meetings “until further notice”.
Asked in a radio interview about a hypothetical nuclear option, Eliyahu had replied: “That’s one way.”
His remark drew swift condemnation from around the Arab world, scandalised mainstream Israeli broadcasters and was deemed “objectionable” by a U.S. official.
Neither Eliyahu or his party leader are in the streamlined ministerial forum running the Gaza war. Neither would they have inside knowledge of Israel’s nuclear capabilities – which it does not publicly acknowledge – or authority to activate them.
“Eliyahu’s statements are not based in reality. Israel and the IDF (military) are operating in accordance with the highest standards of international law to avoid harming innocents. We will continue to do so until our victory,” Netanyahu’s office said.
The League of Arab States said in a statement: “The racist statements of Israeli Minister Eliyahu are revealing. Not only does he admit that they possess a nuclear weapon, but he also confirms the reality of the Israelis’ abhorrent racist view towards the Palestinian people.”
Some 9,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, stirring widening international concern over Israel’s tactics.
The crisis prompted another troubleshooting visit to the Middle East by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend.
“Obviously that was an objectionable statement and the prime minister made very clear that he (Eliyahu) wasn’t speaking on behalf of the government,” a senior U.S. State Department official said.
Eliyahu said in a social media post: “It is clear to anyone who is sensible that the nuclear remark was metaphorical.”
But he added: “A strong and disproportionate response to terrorism is definitely required, which will clarify to the Nazis and their supporters that terrorism is not worthwhile.”
A spokesperson for Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel’s destruction, said Eliyahu represented “unprecedented criminal Israeli terrorism (that) constitutes a danger to the entire region and the world”.
In Eliyahu’s Kol Barama radio interview, it was noted that ravaging Gaza would endanger some 240 hostages – among them foreigners as well as Israelis – held since Hamas sparked the war with an Oct 7 cross-border assault that killed 1,400 people.
“In war, you pay a price,” the minister responded, while adding that he was praying for the return of the hostages.
Benny Gantz, a centrist ex-general who joined the conservative Netanyahu from the opposition in the streamlined war cabinet, said Eliyahu’s remarks had been damaging “and, even worse, added to the pain of the hostages’ families at home”.