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Netanyahu, Smotrich sign deal handing far-right party sweeping powers over West Bank

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

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich shake hands after signing a coalition deal in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Likud)
Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich shake hands after signing a coalition deal in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Likud)

The Likud and Religious Zionism parties sign a coalition deal, giving Bezalel Smotrich’s far-right party the finance ministry for two years, control over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an influential position to direct judicial reform in the Knesset, among other responsibilities.

Smotrich will serve as finance minister in an expected power-sharing deal with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who is said to be slated to start in the interior and health ministries, provided that the legal barriers to Deri serving as a minister due to his recent tax offenses conviction are overcome.

Critically, Religious Zionism will also place a minister within the Defense Ministry to take responsibility for settlement in the West Bank. Likud, which announces the agreement following marathon negotiations this week, says the position will act in coordination with its party leader and presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Religious Zionism had pressed to take control of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, Israel’s civil authority in the West Bank responsible for Jewish settlement and Palestinian building in Area C. Handing the Civil Administration to Religious Zionism, which has a pro-annexation agenda, has been criticized by some as “de facto annexation” of areas of the West Bank.

The announcement does not make clear which areas of the Civil Administration will fall under the purview of Religious Zionism’s minister.

Smotrich’s hardline party will also receive the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the newly named National Missions Ministry, whose responsibilities have yet to be detailed.

Party lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of Religious Zionism’s sweeping plan to place more political control over the judiciary, will take the head of the Knesset’s influential Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a key stop for legislation touching on judicial reform.

Additional areas of agreement include “Jewish identity, education, law, settlement and society,” although the Likud statement does not detail further.

A separate deal, yet to be drafted, will outline policies to be advanced by the parties in the next government.

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