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Netanyahu: We’ll fight ‘all illegal building’ in West Bank – Israeli and Palestinian

Gantz calls Smotrich a ‘Trojan horse’ in Defense Ministry; Smotrich says it is ‘parts of the opposition’ that are behaving like Trojan horses

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his government will combat illegal building by both Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, days after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered the evacuation of an illegal Israeli outpost — with Netanyahu’s backing but in defiance of far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich, who is a second minister in the Defense Ministry responsible for building policy in the West Bank, claimed the outpost was his responsibility but was ignored when he demanded it not be touched, leading to tensions within the coalition.

“We’ll fight against Palestinian illegal building,” Netanyahu promised at the outset of Likud’s weekly faction meeting, adding that “it doesn’t mean that we’ll enable illegal Israeli building.

“What’s important to me is that all heads of the coalition agree on this,” the premier added, in comments apparently directed at Smotrich.

Friday’s showdown was the government’s first test of a novel and nebulously defined power-sharing scheme between Gallant and Smotrich in the Defense Ministry, an arrangement panned as harmful to security by Gallant’s predecessor in the job, Benny Gantz.

Gantz, head of the opposition’s National Unity, told reporters at the start of the party’s Monday faction meeting that the fight over the Or Chaim outpost was “a sample of the serious consequences of introducing Trojan horses into the heart of the security establishment.”

Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting of his National Unity Party at the Knesset on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich is a dedicated settlement leader who has pressed to annex parts of the West Bank. In 2005, as an activist, he was held for three weeks by the Shin Bet on suspicion of planning a violent protest against the then-ongoing Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank.

The rapidly constructed and razed Or Chaim outpost was built in honor of Religious Zionism’s spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

Gantz, who served as IDF chief of staff before entering politics, reaffirmed his concern that Smotrich’s appointment within the Defense Ministry, as well as plans to transfer part of the Border Police from the military’s control to the aegis of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, will cause chaos in the defense establishment.

“As I warned, the IDF must have one commander, and the defense establishment must have one appointed minister,” Gantz said. “The fact that we have reached a situation where contradictory instructions are given regarding routine operational activity of evacuating an outpost is a warning sign to the prime minister and the defense minister that politics is penetrating deeply into the decision-making processes.”

Gantz called on Netanyahu to “stop the farce” and either “take away all power from Smotrich and fully subordinate him to the defense minister” or  “immediately cancel” Smotrich’s appointment within the Defense Ministry. Smotrich also serves as finance minister.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads his Religious Zionism faction’s meeting at the Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is not and cannot be a ‘Defense Minister B,’ there is not and cannot be an alternative commander of forces in Judea and Samaria,” Gantz said, using the biblical and Israeli army term for the West Bank.

Smotrich fought hard to obtain control over construction-related organs of the Civil Administration and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the two hybrid civil-military bodies responsible for carrying out Israel’s civil policy in the West Bank and liaising with the Palestinian Authority.

Smotrich hit back at Gantz, saying it was “parts of the opposition [that] are becoming Trojan horses, slandering Israel.”

Smotrich, at the outset of his faction’s own Knesset meeting, said the opposition’s dire warnings over the government’s policy changes, including a sweeping judicial reform plan, were a result of its aversion to change.

“We’re moving their cheese and it’s hard for them to accept,” said Smotrich.

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