Gantz, Shaked squabble over settlements as cabinet sorts out a West Bank policy

Defense Ministry denies report it would meet quarterly on approving settlement construction, saying no such decision has been made

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Left, Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2021. Right, Interior Minister, Ayelet Shaked at a ceremony in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Yonatan Sindel/Flash90; collage by Times of Israel)
Left, Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2021. Right, Interior Minister, Ayelet Shaked at a ceremony in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Yonatan Sindel/Flash90; collage by Times of Israel)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz criticized Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday for reportedly telling settler leaders that his office would approve construction in the West Bank every three months, saying that no such decision had been made.

“All aspects of settlement will continue to be managed within the defense establishment, led by the defense minister. We recommend that every minister focus on their ministry’s issues,” Gantz’s office said in a statement.

The fracas came as the current government, which contains both parties that fiercely oppose settlement construction and those that staunchly support it, struggles to formulate its West Bank policies.

On Sunday, the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper reported that Shaked last week told members of the Yesha Council — an umbrella organization representing many West Bank settlements — that the Supreme Planning Council​ of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is required to sign off on settlement construction, would meet every quarter to approve the expansion of West Bank settlements.

During the meeting, Shaked reportedly also told the Yesha Council representatives that the current government would continue the basic West Bank policies of the previous government.

Gantz’s office resoundingly denied that such a decision had been made.

“This never happened. There was never agreement on this matter in the coalition negotiations,” a spokesperson for the minister said in a statement.

Israeli settlers march with flags at the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar on June 21, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

When asked if the council would indeed meet quarterly, the spokeswoman repeated that no decision on the matter had been made, noting that — contrary to the report — quarterly meetings of the council would represent a shift in policy from the previous government.

“We will run things as we see fit. [The council] didn’t meet once a quarter in the previous administration. There has been no decision,” she said.

Indeed, the most recent meeting of the council was held in January, in which several hundred housing units were approved for construction.

On Friday, settlers peacefully left the illegal Evyatar outpost in the northern West Bank in an unprecedented agreement under which the wildcat hilltop town was left intact, despite its unauthorized construction two months ago, and the government agreed to survey the land to determine if the outpost was built on privately owned Palestinian property or if it was on state land, in which case it could be retroactively legalized.

This agreement has been widely criticized by left-wing political parties and by members of the defense establishment, who fear that it will set a precedent encouraging settlers to illegally establish more outposts in the West Bank in the future in order to get the government to recognize them after the fact, to avoid a violent eviction.

As a result, motivation in the security establishment has increased to act swiftly to demolish outposts immediately after they are erected, in order to prevent momentum from building that requires the involvement of the political echelon.

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinians during a protest against the Evyatar outpost, in Beita, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on June 18, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Evyatar was a hot potato placed in the new government’s lap by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who implored the IDF not to evacuate the outpost during his final days in office, knowing that the matter would divide the politically diverse coalition that replaced him on June 13.

The agreement struck this week could be seen as a small victory for new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — a former director of the Yesha Council settler lobby — who was intent on avoiding scenes of Israeli troops pulling Jews from their homes during his first month in office.

The main opponent to the outpost in the government was Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who called for its razing days after it was established. As a compromise was being negotiated in recent weeks, Gantz fought to ensure that a yeshiva would not be established until a survey of the land was completed, according to a source familiar with the matter.

While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid from the centrist Yesh Atid party and the left-leaning Meretz and Labor factions also backed the outpost’s demolition, they were uninvolved in negotiations with the settlers, resigned to the belief that the matter was not worth the risk of toppling the government so early on, the source explained.

The agreement has also faced criticism from the far-right. A senior official in the Religious Zionism party told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael, that the compromise was a ploy by the new government to remove the settlers and that it has no intention to move forward with the land survey.

“I think a forcible eviction would have been better. At least it would have had a positive impact on the settlement movement,” the Religious Zionism official argued. “After forcible evictions, the settlers are always compensated with a new town or neighborhood.”

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan told Zman Yisrael that such scenes of forcible eviction were exactly the ones he was trying to avoid.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan at the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar on June 27, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

“We should not have to leave. It hurts on many levels, but this was the best compromise available. I wanted to prevent the sights from Gush Katif and Amona,” he said, in reference to settlements in Gaza and the West Bank evacuated in 2005 and 2017, respectively.

Evyatar was established a kilometer and a half from the northern West Bank’s Tapuah Junction days after a shooting attack there that left a yeshiva student dead and two others wounded. The Nahala movement headed by former Kedumim settlement mayor Daniella Weiss spearheaded its construction in coordination with Dagan.

Earlier iterations of Evyatar have been razed several times since Israelis settled the site in 2013.

The site has been a point of friction, with occasional deadly clashes breaking out with Palestinians protesting its establishment on a near-daily basis recently. Hundreds gathered near the site on Friday afternoon as it was being evacuated and hurled rocks and other objects at soldiers. Five demonstrators were injured by rubber bullets fired by IDF soldiers in response, according to Palestinian media.

The outpost is likely to remain a flashpoint, given the IDF’s intention to maintain a permanent presence there.

The US State Department on Wednesday condemned the outpost’s establishment, noting that it is deemed “illegal even under Israeli law.”

“We believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity and a negotiated two-state solution,” a State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel in response to a query on the matter.

The international community regards all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal but Israeli law differentiates between settlements permitted by the Defense Ministry and outposts established without permission, often by ideologically motivated youths. Many settlements started life as illegal outposts and only gained retroactive government approval after reaching a critical mass of residents.

Jacob Magid and Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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