Far-right ministers set to skip Sunday cabinet meeting to protest outpost eviction

Religious Zionism party urges Netanyahu to clarify division of authority over IDF after Smotrich accuses Defense Minister Gallant of ordering evacuation in breach of coalition deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers from the far-right Religious Zionism party are expected to boycott Sunday’s cabinet meeting in protest of the evacuation of an illegal outpost set up early Friday in the West Bank, according to a Saturday report.

Sources in Religious Zionism were cited by Channel 12 news as saying the party was looking into additional steps to protest what party leader Bezalel Smotrich has called a violation of coalition agreements.

Smotrich was referring to the evacuation of the Or Chaim outpost on Friday that was ordered by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, despite Smotrich’s stated objection.

Apart from Smotrich, who is finance minister and also serves as a minister within the Defense Ministry, his party has two other cabinet representatives, National Missions Minister Orit Strock and Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer.

The report said Religious Zionism has demanded that Netanyahu clarify the division of authority over the Israel Defense Forces between Gallant and Smotrich, who serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry with responsibility for civil affairs in the West Bank, in addition to his position as Finance Minister.

The disagreement between Gallant and Smotrich revolves around the state’s approach to old and new outposts in the West Bank, according to Channel 12.

Current policy — which may be changed — states that the evacuation of an old outpost requires the approval of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a position that is now under Smotrich’s purview. However, the evacuation of new outposts, as was the case on Friday, only requires the commander of the IDF Central Command to give the green light. And that person is subject to the chief of staff and subsequently to the defense minister.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (center), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right), and COGAT head Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian (left) hold a meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, January 12, 2023. (Courtesy)

The eventual dismantlement of the outpost, which was carried out without incident, marked the first test of coalition deals that sought to divvy up the powers of the Defense Ministry by handing Smotrich some of its authorities.

Responding to the showdown between Gallant and Smotrich over the issue, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement Friday that said the state would only support Jewish settlement in the West Bank if it is done according to the law and coordinated with the premier and the relevant security officials, “which did not happen in this case.”

Gallant, a former top general, reiterated his commitment to upholding the law in the West Bank and said the IDF had the “full support” of the Defense Ministry.

The dismantled outpost in question was established by five families to mark one month since the death of religious Zionist leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman. It was intentionally built near the settlement of Migdalim and overlooks the Trans-Samarian highway in order to disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity, the founders have told Hebrew media.

The establishment of the settlement was seen as an immediate challenge for the coalition, which has committed to entrenching Israel’s control over the territory but has also faced pressure, particularly from the US, to act with restraint.

Security forces move in to evacuate an illegal settlement outpost established in the West Bank on January 20, 2023. (Courtesy)

Coalition deals between the Likud and its religious and far-right allies include a vague promise to annex the West Bank to Israel, a pledge to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements, and the provision of large funds for road building and public transport in the West Bank.

In a possible sign of moderation on settlement issues, Netanyahu on Thursday reportedly ordered the shelving of a proposal to formally split the Tel Zion neighborhood away from the central West Bank’s Kochav Yaakov settlement, which was slated to be approved by the cabinet on Sunday.

The plan had been pushed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to better serve residents of Haredi settlements but was blocked by Netanyahu, ostensibly due to concerns over the optics of the effective creation of a new settlement days after hosting a senior official from US President Joe Biden’s administration, which opposes settlement expansion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Meanwhile, reports on Saturday indicated that Netanyahu was expected to fire Shas leader Aryeh Deri during Sunday’s cabinet meeting following last week’s High Court of Justice’s ruling against his return to ministerial office.

The ruling has created a severe problem for Netanyahu since Deri and his Shas party are a critical part of the coalition, and Deri has insisted that he remain in government in some form. That, however, would likely entail either circumventing the court decision through legislation — which would be complex and time-consuming — or being appointed as alternate prime minister, a position that Netanyahu has sought to eliminate entirely. That option is risky, since it could end up with Deri barred from even being a Knesset member.

On Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sent Netanyahu a letter informing him he was required to dismiss Deri from his posts, although she did not stipulate a time frame. According to a report by Channel 13, the reason for Netanyahu’s delay on the issue was due to his search for replacements in the interior and health ministries.

According to the Ynet news site, Netanyahu will appoint Shas MKs as temporary replacements for the time being and then move to push for legislation that could bring Deri back to the government in the near future.

Netanyahu has in the past taken on ministerial portfolios in addition to his position as prime minister for various reasons, but is unable to do so at present because he is currently under indictment and on trial for corruption charges.

Tobias Siegal and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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