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Netanyahu said to back Smotrich over Gallant in dispute over West Bank authority

After combative meeting, certain powers in Civil Administration slated to be handed to Religious Zionism leader in line with coalition deals, as defense minister fumes, report says

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly ruled in favor of Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich in his battle with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over ministerial responsibility for the Civil Administration in the West Bank.

The three lawmakers met on both Monday and Tuesday in a bid to sort out the dispute, which came to a head on Friday when Smotrich and Gallant clashed over the razing of an illegal West Bank outpost. The outpost was evacuated on Gallant’s order, triggering tensions with Smotrich, who is also a minister within the Defense Ministry.

Smotrich said he had told the Civil Administration, an agency within the Defense Ministry, to halt the evacuation of Or Chaim, but that Gallant had authorized the action anyway. On Sunday, ministers from Religious Zionism boycotted the weekly cabinet meeting in protest over the move.

Under the terms of a coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, Smotrich was made a minister within the Defense Ministry and given authority over the Civil Administration, which is in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, including enforcement against illegal construction.

According to a report Wednesday on the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu has taken Smotrich’s side over Gallant’s and will order the transfer of civilian authorities under the Civil Administration to Smotrich. Security authorities within the Civil Administration are slated to remain under Gallant.

This is expected to grant Smotrich — who is also finance minister — the power to rein in enforcement against illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank, as well as against illegal Palestinian construction. Gallant will remain in charge of entry visas for West Bank Palestinian laborers and other authorities.

Security forces move in to evacuate an illegal settlement outpost established in the West Bank on January 20, 2023. (Courtesy)

According to the report, Justice Minister Yariv Levin — who served as Likud’s chief negotiator during coalition talks — as well as National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, a former Likud MK, supported Smotrich’s position, but all of the senior IDF officials in attendance were opposed.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Gallant warned that there can’t be a split in the chain of command, while senior security officials noted that the decisions of the Civil Administration also had security implications, Kan reported, publishing a partial transcript from the closed-door meeting.

“I am the defense minister. There can’t be two military commanders,” Gallant reportedly said, telling Levin and Smotrich that they “spent two months playing in front of an empty goal — nobody asked me.”

But Netanyahu, Smotrich and Levin all pointed to the signed coalition agreements mandating the transfer of powers to Smotrich.

In response to the Kan report, former defense minister and former IDF chief Benny Gantz tweeted that while founding prime minister David Ben Gurion “disbanded all the underground militias and brought all the organizations into the IDF — 75 years later, Netanyahu is dismantling the IDF into pieces due to his political motivations, and directly undermining the unity of command.”

Gantz, head of the opposition National Unity party, wrote that such a move “will be a direct threat to security, in the face of which a black flag must be waved.”

A former legal adviser to the defense establishment told The Times of Israel in an interview last week that the government would need to amend two of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws — The Government and The Military — for Smotrich to be given independent authority in the ministry and to give orders to the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), and its office, the Civil Administration.

Aviv Kohavi, who ended his term as IDF chief of staff earlier this month, repeatedly objected to the transfer of any of the defense minister’s authority over the IDF to any other minister.

An IDF spokesman said Netanyahu and Kohavi had agreed “that decisions that are tied to the IDF will be made only after the IDF presents the consequences and significance of such decisions.”

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