Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to relinquish significant control over the approval process for West Bank settlement construction to far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party.
As part of the coalition agreement reached between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Religious Zionism, the prime minister’s approval will only be required at an initial stage of the planning process, when the government decides the scope and location of projects to be placed on the docket of the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction, the Kan public broadcaster reported Friday.
Currently, the prime minister’s approval is needed at every stage of the process, which requires four or more authorizations from the Civil Administration before ground can be broken. The need for the premier’s okay at each stage has allowed past governments to freeze or shelve settlement projects that were particularly controversial or exposed Israel to significant international backlash.
With Netanyahu’s approval set to now only be required in the first stage of planning — as well as the last stage for certain projects in larger West Bank settlements — de facto control over the process will shift to Smotrich, the report said.
Under the coalition deal with Religious Zionism, Netanyahu agreed to hand authority over the two key bodies that administer Israeli control in the West Bank — the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration — to Smotrich or another member of his party who will serve as a second minister in the Defense Ministry, with separate powers fron the defense minister. It is widely expected that Smotrich, who is slated to become finance minister, will also take this defense job for himself.
A resident of the Kedumim settlement, Smotrich has long advocated for massively expanding settlements and for annexing large parts of the West Bank without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas. He has also called for dismantling the Civil Administration, arguing that settlers in the West Bank should be governed by civilian bodies, just like civilians in Israel proper. Rights groups have warned such an outcome would lead to “de facto annexation” and cause complex problems for Israel in the international community.
The public broadcaster also said that the new settlement planning process is only vaguely referenced in the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, but Smotrich intends to have it codified in an executive order adopted by the cabinet.
On Thursday, Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu also agreed to advance annexation of West Bank land in his coalition deal with Religious Zionism. However, the commitment is vaguely worded, allowing Netanyahu to not move forward on annexation if he chooses.
It was unclear from the text whether the agreement was over the entire West Bank or only parts of it. While serving as premier in 2020, Netanyahu pushed to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, but later shelved the plan under pressure from the administration of then-US president Donald Trump, and after agreeing to normalize diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates.
The Times of Israel revealed at the time that the Trump administration made a commitment to the UAE not to back an Israeli annexation move until at least 2024.
Last month, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned that the Biden administration would push back against any annexation attempt but said he did not expect Israel to go through with it.