IDF chief reportedly urges Netanyahu not to hand West Bank powers to Smotrich

Halevi said to echo predecessor’s concerns, saying move could lead to breakdown in command, but PM still said inclined to grant far-right minister control of Civil Administration

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant award incoming IDF chief Herzi Halevi with the rank of lieutenant general at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 16, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant award incoming IDF chief Herzi Halevi with the rank of lieutenant general at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 16, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi reportedly reached out to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to object to the premier’s plan to hand authority over a Defense Ministry body responsible for civilian matters in the West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Netanyahu has come under significant pressure from Smotrich in recent days to abide by the terms of the coalition agreement signed between the prime minister’s Likud party and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, under which Smotrich will control the Civil Administration.

The power transfer of the sensitive Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction and demolition of illegal Israeli and Palestinian building in the IDF-controlled Area C of the West Bank has yet to take place — amid significant pushback from both the security establishment and the Biden administration. In addition to concerns over Smotrich’s policies, critics argue that handing control of a West Bank authority to a civilian office headed by the finance minister would amount to de facto annexation.

In his recent conversation with Netanyahu, Halevi argued that the transfer of power would lead to a breakdown in the IDF command, Channel 13 reported on Thursday.

Even if the transfer takes place, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the IDF will remain in charge of security-related issues in the West Bank. Gallant might sign off on the demolition of an illegal settler outpost deemed to pose a security threat. But if Smotrich — who has long advocated for legalizing outposts and annexing large parts of the West Bank — is given control of the Civil Administration and opposes such a demolition, a chaotic situation could ensue on the ground.

Channel 13 said Halevi also relayed his concerns to Gallant, who is similarly opposed to Smotrich’s demand. Halevi’s predecessor, Aviv Kohavi, voiced his own opposition to the move before he stepped down last month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara has also expressed legal reservations, given that Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank territory over which Smotrich seeks some authority. She has warned the government that the power transfer might not hold up in the High Court of Justice if a petition is filed against it.

Smotrich reissued his demand on Wednesday after the Civil Administration uprooted trees planted illegally by a settler in the West Bank in an operation that sparked clashes between settlers and security forces.

Smotrich denounced the operation as “an injustice that screams out to the heavens” and demanded that Netanyahu transfer authority over the Civil Administration to him immediately in accordance with coalition agreements, which he stressed were “the basis for the existence of the coalition.”

Smotrich accused Netanyahu of “unacceptable foot-dragging” over the issue, and said his Religious Zionism party would be holding an “emergency” faction meeting later Wednesday to discuss its next steps.

Later, the Walla news outlet reported that Netanyahu contacted Smotrich and reassured him that the agreement would be honored and his powers would be granted “as soon as possible.”

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