Minister expected to be Smotrich; bill set for plenum vote

Gantz warns new post of West Bank minister will upend crucial command system

In fiery Knesset debate, critics say much closer consideration needed before introducing independent post within the Defense Ministry, and its authorities must be clearly laid out

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Benny Gantz at the Knesset on December 6, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benny Gantz at the Knesset on December 6, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmakers on Thursday held a lengthy and fiery debate on legislation that would enable installing a minister within the Defense Ministry from the far-right Religious Zionism party to oversee West Bank construction, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz telling the special committee that if enacted, this would “break apart” clear chains of command and cause a “loss of security.”

In addition to the concerns raised by Gantz and by soon-to-be opposition lawmakers who are former security officials regarding confusion of command, the bill also drew criticism from legal advisers who said it does not clearly delineate the responsibilities that will fall under the independent minister within the Defense Ministry, likely to be Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich.

The bill was scheduled for another vote in the Knesset plenum Thursday evening, after it passed a preliminary reading earlier in the week. Three votes after the preliminary one are required, each requiring the support of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, since it is a change to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government.

Part of a legislative blitz demanded by far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties as preconditions to form Benjamin Netanyahu’s expected government, the bill will for the first time create a permanent mechanism for two ministers in a single ministry. A previous second minister in the Defense Ministry, Gantz’s party colleague Michael Biton, was appointed in 2020-2021 through a temporary mechanism and was in charge of non-operational affairs.

The likely incoming coalition wants the bills to pass into law before the government is sworn in, with Netanyahu having until December 21 to declare he has cobbled together a coalition.

Speaking to the special committee formed to prepare the bill, Gantz said that bifurcating the current command system by putting a second minister within the Defense Ministry in charge of defense-related matters would create “breakdowns.”

“This command system knows how to cope with a concrete operational need and make the necessary system of balances. When you violate the system of balances, you are coming out of an equilibrium that will divert the system from the system of balances that it needs to happen,” the defense minister told the committee.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz with MK Bezalel Smotrich during a plenum session at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a coalition agreement annex signed by Netanyahu’s Likud party and Religious Zionism, presumed-minister Smotrich — who is also promised a half-term in the Finance Ministry — will oversee a new, independent office within the Defense Ministry to oversee building in areas of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, known as Area C. An ardent settlement supporter, Smotrich has pushed to annex parts of the West Bank, which is home to about 500,000 Jewish settlers and almost 3 million Palestinians.

Despite having expressed a desire to close the Israeli government’s agencies in the West Bank — the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories and its office overseeing many settlement issues, the Civil Administration — Smotrich will be able to appoint the generals leading these offices, with Netanyahu’s approval.

Currently, the major general in charge of COGAT is appointed by the defense minister at the recommendation of the IDF chief of staff, and the brigadier general overseeing the Civil Administration is appointed by the IDF chief of staff.

Israeli settlement construction and retroactive legalization of unauthorized outposts, as well as demolition of unpermitted Palestinian construction in Area C — where Israel exercises both civil and military control — are the core issues that will fall under the Religious Zionism minister. They also are flashpoint issues for violence in the currently roiling West Bank, and the military commanders need clear lines of authority when making quick decisions.

Gantz said that putting Smotrich or his designee in control of these sensitive issues can lead to confusion within the Defense Ministry and the military establishment.

“In order to cope with such a security challenge, there must be a united, solid, managed, and commanding” chain of command, Gantz said. He added that dealing with challenges like the Iran nuclear program and Palestinian violence may be “commanded at the military level” and “managed at the ministerial level,” but they are “directed and dictated by the Israeli government, not by the defense minister himself” or another minister within the Defense Ministry.

Illustrative. IDF soldiers during terror suspect arrest operations in the West Bank, August 10, 2022. (IDF)

Combined with a coalition promise to transfer the West Bank Border Police units out of IDF command and to expected incoming national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Gantz says that “in the end, there will be three defense ministers.”

“If, God forbid, gaps are created that affect operational activity, we will regret this moment,” the defense minister and National Unity party head added.

Gantz’s No. 3 in National Unity and fellow former IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, urged the committee to slow down the legislative process.

“I recommend investing time in thought, not taking such a decision lightly, and this includes other political moves like subordinating the Border Police, subjugating the Civil Administration in a very charged system on very charged days, with complex disintegration in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Biblical terms for the West Bank commonly used in Hebrew.

“To make such a move at this time because of political needs is, in my view, a mistake,” Eisenkot added, referring to the pressure Smotrich had put on Netanyahu to pass this bill as a condition for joining his coalition.

Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with MK Yariv Levin during Levin’s election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz was more explicit in his criticism of his one-time partner in government.

“It bothers me because I know that Netanyahu agrees with everything I have just said but he is acting out of political weakness,” said Gantz.

The bill to enable Smotrich to be a minister in the Defense Ministry was merged on Wednesday evening with another change to the same Basic Law, which would clear Shas party leader Aryeh Deri’s path to become a cabinet minister despite his suspended sentence for tax fraud received earlier this year, by specifying that only people who got custodial sentences would be barred from such office.

Both bills are expected to come for a joint vote on Thursday and be immediately sent back to the committee for final vote preparations.

New position’s responsibilities remain unclear

Although the change to Basic Law will create a permanent vehicle for appointing a second minister in a ministry, it remains unclear what authorities the intended minister will hold beyond the intentions sketched out by coalition agreements.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, who sponsored the bill and is slated to chair the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, when it is formed — where Basic Law fixes would be discussed — said that because the change is a “framework” to “establish permanent arrangement, which applies to all ministries,” it does not delineate responsibilities.

“This is a framework bill. It does not determine which areas of activity will be in the hands of which minister; it creates a mechanism that the government and the Knesset will want to use,” Rothman said.

But Deputy Attorney General for Constitutional Affairs Avital Sompolinsky told the committee on Wednesday that such a “complex” appointment of an additional minister should be accompanied by a government directive.

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