Knesset legal aide urges caution on bill giving Smotrich reign over West Bank policy

Legal adviser says defense minister should be the only minister in charge of the IDF, as coalition advances bill to create junior role in charge of key Defense Ministry bodies

The West Bank settlement of Efrat, March 10, 2022. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
The West Bank settlement of Efrat, March 10, 2022. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

The Knesset’s legal adviser on Wednesday hinted at discomfort with a bill being advanced by the incoming coalition that will allow a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party to be tasked with a junior ministerial role within the Defense Ministry in charge of various policies in the West Bank.

The legal opinion submitted by Gur Bligh did not reject the controversial legislation outright but appeared to recommend that it be amended in order to avoid being scrapped by the High Court of Justice due to violation of one of the country’s Basic Laws.

Bligh wrote that the lawmakers should ensure that the defense minister remains the sole minister responsible for the IDF and that the military’s chief of staff should report directly to them.

The legal adviser appeared to be making the recommendation in light of the incoming coalition’s intention to task a Religious Zionism member with control over two Defense Ministry bodies — the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories bodies — that are responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, even though they are also currently under the purview of the IDF’s Central Command.

The Civil Administration and COGAT administer numerous aspects of civilian life in the West Bank for both Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the territory, including managing the movement of goods and people as well as granting construction permits and enforcing demolition orders.

Bligh wrote that the bill should clarify that “the transfer of the aforementioned areas of activity to the additional minister in the ministry will not harm the arrangement enshrined in the Basic Law: The Military.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) and IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (C) at an IDF base in Beersheba on August 24, 2022. (IDF spokesperson)

That 1976 law lays out the division of powers in the IDF and details the military’s relationship with the political echelon.

The legal adviser suggested that a possible way to address the issue would be for the bill’s writers to specify the relationship between the new junior minister and the defense minister, since the current version of the legislation only generally describes the Religious Zionism minister’s role.

Bligh also noted that there was precedent for the appointment of a junior minister in the Defense Ministry, with National Unity MK Michael Biton filling such a role from 2020 to 2021 with the title of minister for civil and social affairs in the Defense Ministry.

However, Biton did not deal with West Bank policy and no entire departments were transferred to his control either. Moreover, the defense minister at the time was Benny Gantz, the chairman of Biton’s party. In the incoming government, the defense minister is slated to be a member of Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, while the junior minister will be from Religious Zionism — likely the party’s chairman Bezalel Smotrich.

Bezalel Smotrich holding a sign calling for the authorization of new settlements during a visit to the West Bank on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Smotrich has long expressed his desire to dismantle the Civil Administration in what critics say would amount to de facto annexation because it would allow for Israeli citizens in the West Bank to be administered by a civilian body, rather than a military one, as is the case for Palestinians.

Smotrich has also called for razing wildcat Palestinian construction in the West Bank’s Area C (which covers some 60 percent of the West Bank) while legalizing similarly illicit building by settlers in the same area, which the Oslo Accords placed under temporary Israeli control.

The incoming coalition on Tuesday fast-tracked the legislation regarding the extra Defense Ministry minister along with three other bills: one expanding the authority of the national security minister — set to be Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir — over the police force; another clearing a path for a party leader given a suspended sentence — Shas’s Aryeh Deri — to head three ministries; and another making it harder for rebel MKs to peel off from their parliamentary factions without facing sanctions.

The bills, which the incoming coalition is hoping to advance through their three Knesset readings in the next week, are seen as essential for the formation of Netanyahu’s next government, which will comprise Likud, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas; and the Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam far-right Orthodox parties.

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