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Netanyahu gives Smotrich broad powers over settlements, Palestinian construction

Under coalition deal, Religious Zionism chief will be finance minister for two years, with party also granted influential position to advance controversial judicial reform

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)

Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu granted far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich extensive powers over Israeli settlements and Palestinian construction in the West Bank as part of a coalition deal signed on Thursday between Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party and Netanyahu’s Likud.

Under the agreement, authority over the settlement and open lands divisions in the powerful Civil Administration and Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit will be handed to a Religious Zionism minister based in the Defense Ministry, a spokesperson for the party confirmed.

Channel 12 reported that this minister will likely be Smotrich himself, who will also be taking over the Treasury under the agreement, though the party said that has yet to be finalized.

The sensitive appointment will give Religious Zionism control over key aspects of civil life in the West Bank’s Area C, including parts of the Civil Administration governing Israeli and Palestinian construction there. The prospect of handing such powers to Religious Zionism, with its pro-annexation agenda, has been criticized by some as tantamount to annexing areas of the West Bank.

Smotrich had initially sought the post of defense minister in the coalition talks, but Netanyahu, reportedly under pressure from the US, opted not to entrust the running of so sensitive a ministry to the far-right leader. Granting Smotrich or his party the post of a junior minister in the Defense Ministry, with wide-ranging authority in the West Bank, nonetheless constitutes the transfer of responsibilities normally held by the defense minister to his control.

It marks a significant achievement for Smotrich, and a potential source of friction, given the Religious Zionism leader’s unstinting support for settlement expansion and hardline positions on the Palestinians. Smotrich performed only brief military service, and was jailed for three weeks by the Shin Bet in 2005 when suspected of planning terrorist activity to protest the disengagement from Gaza; he was never charged.

Signed after a series of stalemates and marathon meetings, Thursday’s deal also gives Smotrich’s party the Finance Ministry, an additional ministry to handle unspecified “national missions,” and an influential position to shepherd judicial reform through the Knesset, among other prominent roles.

Inserting a Religious Zionism minister as head of COGAT’s settlements work is liable to change the critical unit’s command structure. Rather than appeal to the defense minister for changes, ministers will have to turn to the Religious Zionism minister, in coordination with Netanyahu.

A statement released by the Likud party announcing the deal said that the minister would be “responsible for settlement in Judea and Samaria.” The Likud statement confirmed that the Religious Zionism minister in the Defense Ministry would work in coordination with Netanyahu.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich as party chiefs pose for a group photograph during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

In addition to his party’s control over Jewish building and destroying unauthorized Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank, Smotrich will serve as finance minister in a rotation with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who is expected to start off in the interior and health ministries, once the government passes legislation to grant Deri a cabinet spot despite his suspended sentence for tax offenses.

Religious Zionism lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the party’s sweeping plan to clip the wings of the judiciary, will head the Knesset’s influential Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a key stop for legislating judicial reform.

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. Lawmaker Ofir Sofer is expected to take care of Jewish immigration, while MK Orit Strock will helm the National Missions Ministry and possibly rotate into another ministry later on, Channel 12 reported.

Additional areas of the agreement between the parties cover “Jewish identity, education, law, settlement and society,” bit the Likud statement did not detail this further.

Upon signing the agreement, Likud’s Netanyahu said it constituted “another significant step that brings us closer to the establishment of a national right-wing government that will take care of all citizens of Israel.”

Smotrich called the deal a “historic step” toward forming a “Jewish, Zionist and national” government, which he said was set to reform the judiciary, develop settlements and “strengthen Jewish identity in the spirit of religious Zionism.”

“Together we will do a lot of good for the State of Israel and work hard for the citizens of Israel, all of them,” he added.

The Likud-Religious Zionism deal is the third signed with a coalition party, although not all are complete in their details. Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have yet to ink an agreement with Likud. When those are completed, as is expected in the near future, Netanyahu will swear in his religious-right coalition, the most hardline in Israeli history, comprising 64 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

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