Netanyahu appoints Smotrich de facto PM of the West Bank, gambles on restraining him

An extraordinary coalition deal gives the Religious Zionism leader ‘full responsibility’ in the biblical Judea and Samaria he seeks to annex, with only Netanyahu to hold him back

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

In its four pages of closely typed text, the coalition “appendix” deal signed and released earlier this week by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party confers upon Smotrich what amounts to the prime ministership of the West Bank. Or rather, as Smotrich would most definitely term it, of the biblical Judea and Samaria.

One clause, 6.4, specifies that Religious Zionism will appoint a minister within the Defense Ministry who will be “responsible for the areas of activity” of COGAT (the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories) and the Civil Administration.  Smotrich has made clear that, along with his imminent appointment as finance minister, he himself will take this new, immensely powerful Defense Ministry job, maintaining offices and staffs in both ministries. (COGAT is the Defense Ministry unit that, broadly speaking, administers the West Bank; the Civil Administration, which is part of COGAT, serves as a kind of equivalent to government ministries for civilian issues of the Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank, and notably for building permits in Area C, the 60% of the territory where the Israeli settlements are located.)

In case Clause 6.4 is not sufficiently definitive, a second clause, 21, elaborates that “the aforementioned minister in the Defense Ministry will have full responsibility for the areas of activity of COGAT and the Civil Administration.”

Elsewhere, the deal further specifies that the new minister will be responsible for appointing the heads of COGAT and the Civil Administration. The first of those appointments was hitherto made by the defense minister, underlining the depletion of the defense minister’s role and the unprecedented authority being transferred to this second Defense Ministry minister.

There is one caveat. Sprinkled liberally throughout the agreement, with subtly varying formulations, are phrases declaring that Smotrich’s new powers are “subject to the approval of the prime minister” or “the confirmation” of the prime minister, or “in accordance” with the prime minister.

The agreement transparently confirms the political context in which it was “negotiated”: On the one side, Smotrich, raised in Beit El, a resident of Kedumin, an implacable campaigner for the restoration of full Jewish sovereignty over the biblical Land of Israel in its entirety, and determined to utilize his post-election leverage to advance what he regards as that divinely ordained goal. And on the other, Netanyahu, a would-be prime minister whose parliamentary majority, though healthy, is contingent on the full support of all of its right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox components — among whom Smotrich is the most uncompromising and single-minded.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Religious Zionist party head Bezalel Smotrich and other party leaders in a group photo after the swearing-in of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

I use “negotiated” in quotes because, reading the Likud-Religious Zionism agreement, you can almost hear Smotrich and his representatives saying, “We want this and this, and this and this” — everything from overarching responsibility for Smotrich over Judea and Samaria, to his appointment as deputy head and sole acting chair of the Ministerial Committee on Settlement if Netanyahu is absent, to further settlement responsibilities via a newly named Ministry of National Missions, oversight of the state Orthodox school system, authority over “Jewish cultural” education…

And the Likud representatives, ordered by Netanyahu to get the deal done at almost any cost, saying, “Okay, yes, fine, take it, take it.”

What went on in the month of stop-start negotiations that ultimately spawned this agreement, in other words, was a case of a prime minister-designate desperately trying to sign up his most ideologically unyielding coalition partner, giving away the store — in this case the West Bank — in principle. And, here’s that caveat again, betting that he can stop at least the more drastic consequences.

The fact is that Israeli political history is littered with the detritus of broken coalition deals — as Netanyahu arguably knows best of all. Remember that incomprehensibly complex coalition agreement he hammered out with Benny Gantz in April 2020, enabling him to swear in a “unity government” the following month? If Netanyahu had honored that deal, Gantz would today be more than a year into his solemnly promised prime ministership.

Doubtless, once his coalition is sworn in, Netanyahu will attempt to bring all those “subject to the prime minister’s approval” provisos into play, at least in those areas where he does not share Smotrich’s agenda. Doubtless, he will also urge Smotrich and the other dangerous radicals he has mainstreamed and now awarded ministerial roles to internalize the wider context in which Israel is governed, and therefore moderate their activities.

He will presumably highlight the need to maintain the closest possible relationship with the Biden administration in order to thwart the Iranian regime’s accelerating progress to nuclear weapons, the current potential opportunity to formalize some kind of relationship with Saudi Arabia, and other crucial national interests. And he will stress that Israel can ill afford the kind of major crisis with the Palestinians that Smotrich’s attempts to implement his unswerving Land of Israel agenda would ignite, or the crisis with the Muslim world that Itamar Ben Gvir’s demand for full Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount would trigger.

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)

But the sheer scale and scope of Smotrich’s demands for responsibility over the West Bank, and Netanyahu’s evident assessment that he could have no coalition if he did not meet those demands, at least in principle, underscore the leverage that Smotrich holds and the extent of the gamble set out over the four pages of the Likud-Religious Zionism deal:

Netanyahu is a remarkable politician, worldly and wise, articulate, indefatigable, and generally several steps ahead of almost all of his rivals. But he is setting up a government in which he has empowered Smotrich with the authority to pursue goals — initially including legalizing unauthorized outposts and major settlement expansion, and ultimately extending to full Israeli annexation of the West Bank with very limited Palestinian rights — that would create an earthquake for Israel in this region, subject only to Netanyahu’s restraint. At the same time, he has given Ben Gvir unprecedented authority over the police, and also over Border Police units in the West Bank, when Ben Gvir has declared he wants to ease open-fire orders — all again subject only to Netanyahu’s restraint.

That adds up to a veritable mountain of restraint, to be imposed on bold, stubborn, vigorous and now extremely powerful forces, by one politically dependent man, aged 73. One man, who is also apparently ready to deeply harm Israel’s judiciary as he seeks to extricate himself from his legal woes, and who will be battling domestic opposition and much of Diaspora Jewry if he concedes to ultra-Orthodox demands for blanket exclusion from IDF service and the further diminution of the status of non-Orthodox Judaism.

Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on December 4, 2022. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Don’t worry, Netanyahu has assured American audiences in a series of recent interviews — understandably preferring their less rigorous questioning to the inquisitions he’d face from some mainstream Israeli journalists. He won’t allow harm to the LGBTQ community, he’s promised, despite assigning substantive authority, including over educational programming, to the virulently anti-LGBTQ incoming deputy minister Avi Moaz. He won’t send Israel down the road to Smotrich’s desired Jewish theocracy, he’s vowed. He will protect Israeli democracy, he’s claimed, even as all the parties in his nascent coalition chorus their support for legislation that would radically constrain or even neuter the Supreme Court. Of course, he was never going to appoint the Religious Zionism party leader as defense minister, he has scoffed, neglecting to mention the powers he has subsequently conceded to Smotrich.

And don’t worry, Netanyahu would also presumably attempt to insist, about Smotrich’s new role and his own apparent weakness in acceding to Smotrich’s demands. After all, he would note, as his deal with Smotrich provides, he as prime minister of Israel will have the means to constrain the ambitions of the de facto prime minister of the West Bank.

But that will be an enormous task, even for the remarkable Netanyahu. With nothing less than the destiny of Israel at stake.

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