Netanyahu to give ultranationalist politician authority over policy in occupied West Bank
Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signed a coalition agreement with Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich that will give the far-right politician unprecedented authority over the policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and relations with the Palestinians.
Why it matters: Smotrich, a radical right-wing settler known for his Jewish supremacist rhetoric, supports the annexation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements. He has also called for increasing the number of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian houses in the area of the West Bank that is not controlled by the Palestinian Authority, known as Area C.
- Smotrich's expected appointment comes as the West Bank experiences some of the highest tensions and worst violence since the second intifada two decades ago. U.S. diplomats and Israeli security officials are concerned that further deterioration in the security situation in the West Bank could lead to a third Intifada.
Driving the news: According to the coalition agreement, published on Monday, Smotrich will be appointed as the minister of finance, as well as a “minister in the ministry of defense."
- As part of his ministry of defense post, Smotrich will be in charge of the two key military units that run civilian and security affairs in the West Bank.
The big picture: The occupied West Bank has historically been administered by the commander of the IDF central command, who is in charge of military operations, and the coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), who is in charge of security and civilian relations with the Palestinians in the West Bank, including with the Palestinian Authority.
- Both operated directly under the supervision of the Israeli defense minister, who is the cabinet member in charge of policy in the West Bank.
State of play: The new coalition agreement divides for the first time the authorities of the defense minister by moving all the authorities in the West Bank that are not directly connected to military operations over to Smotrich as the “minister in the ministry of defense."
- Smotrich will be in charge of COGAT, including its civilian administration — a unit that manages all the issues relevant to the expansion of settlements and the daily lives of Palestinians and Israeli settlers.
- This will give Smotrich authority and power over building permits in the settlements, planning and zoning, determining the status of land in parts of the West Bank, demolitions of Palestinian homes and issues like water supply and infrastructure.
- It will also give Smotrich authority over the security and civilian coordination with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and with the authorities in Gaza. Smotrich supports abolishing the Palestinian Authority, and his appointment could lead the Palestinians to halt security coordination. The PA has not publicly commented on the coalition agreement.
The coalition agreement says that Smotrich will also have the authority of appointing the head of COGAT, a military officer with the rank of major general, and the head of the civil administration, a military officer with the rank of brigadier general.
- Both positions were historically appointed by the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister according to professional criteria.
- According to the agreement, Smotrich will also be able to appoint several legal advisers as political appointees in order to try and approve moves that are legally controversial and will have the authority to influence the government’s position in Supreme Court hearings over appeals on issues relevant to West Bank land disputes and other related issues.
Between the lines: The coalition agreement repeatedly stresses that all of Smotrich’s actions as a minister in the ministry of defense will be in coordination and under the approval of the prime minister, giving Netanyahu veto power.
- The coalition agreement also says that Netanyahu will have to approve Smotrich’s appointment of the head of COGAT and the head of the civilian administration.
- According to the coalition agreement, Netanyahu will also chair the ministerial committee that approves settlement building and will have veto power over many relevant decisions.
- But it will be hard for Netanyahu to control all these issues, and every time that he wants to use his veto power to stop Smotrich could lead him to lose support in his political base.