US views looming transfer of West Bank powers to Smotrich as step toward annexation

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Religious Zionism faction meeting at the Knesset, February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Religious Zionism faction meeting at the Knesset, February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A visiting senior US official urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government not to move forward with a plan to transfer key Defense Ministry powers relating to the West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, arguing that it would view the measure as a step toward annexation, an official familiar with the matter says today.

The transfer of authority over the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration — two Defense Ministry bodies responsible for authorizing settlement construction, legalizing outposts and green-lighting demolitions of Palestinian homes — was enshrined in a coalition agreement that Netanyahu’s Likud signed with Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party.

It has yet to be implemented though, and Likud Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has quickly pushed back on the plan, saying such powers must remain in his office. The disagreement led to a standoff last month when Gallant signed off on the demolition of an illegal outpost. The razing of the structures that had been erected overnight by young religious nationalist activists went ahead, even after Smotrich sent an urgent letter to the Civil Administration commander ordering him to cease the operation, revealing that Gallant still has the upper hand.

However, Netanyahu agreed to hold a subsequent meeting with Gallant and Smotrich during which the latter demanded the coalition agreement be implemented. Gallant, for his part, argued that he was not part of those negotiations. He also has the backing of the defense establishment, which has warned of the security ramifications of placing such sensitive powers in the hands of a pro-annexationist such as Smotrich.

At the same time, Smotrich may well have more leverage than Gallant, given that he heads a party large enough to bring down the government, in addition to being in control of the Treasury.

Netanyahu has yet to rule on the matter, but US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf warned his senior aides last week against siding in Smotrich’s favor, the official familiar with the matter says, confirming a report in the Walla news site.

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