Israel looks to far-right figure to head Holocaust memorial

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Israel's then-Infrastructure Minister Effie Eitam, center in blue shirt, listens to Jewish settlers when visiting Mitzpeh Assaf, an illegal outpost which Israel's Defense Minster said will be dismantled, near the settlement of Ofra, north of Jerusalem, Sunday Oct. 13, 2002. Israel plans to nominate Eitam to head the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, officials said Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Zoom 77)

JERUSALEM – Israel plans to nominate a far-right former general and Cabinet minister who once called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank to head the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, officials said Tuesday.

Effie Eitam, a religious nationalist with a history of harsh rhetoric toward the Palestinians and Israel's Arab minority, is also a staunch advocate of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, which are widely seen as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace.

Groups representing Holocaust survivors have expressed concern his appointment could tarnish one of the world's leading institutions for Holocaust remembrance and open it up to criticism from the Palestinian-led boycott movement as well as those who question or deny the Nazi genocide.

Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, selected Eitam for the post, Israel's Haaretz daily reported. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the appointment, which has not been made public, said Netanyahu supports his candidacy. A spokesman for Elkin did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview, Eitam said Netanyahu offered him the job two months ago but said he has heard nothing since then. He indicated he would be interested in the post if the appointment becomes official and said he was unaware of any controversy surrounding his candidacy. A parliamentary committee would have to give final approval.

Eitam, 68, served in the Israeli military during the 1973 Middle East War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. During the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1988, troops under his command beat up two Palestinian suspects, one of whom later died. The soldiers, who were convicted of assault by a military court, said they were following orders.

He retired as a brigadier general in 2000 and later entered politics, serving in the Knesset, or parliament, from 2003 until 2009. He also briefly served as a Cabinet minister before resigning in 2005 to protest Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Eitam lives in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

During the second intifada in the early 2000s he advocated harsh measures, saying then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his “gang of murderers” should be put to death. In 2006 he was bloodied in clashes between settlers and Israeli troops during the evacuation of a West Bank outpost.