The coalition dealsKey clauses may impact Israel’s Jewish character, governance

Religious Zionism deal: West Bank sovereignty, settlement growth, discrimination law

Clauses in the far-right party’s agreement with Likud provide for overriding the High Court, strengthening West Bank presence and bolstering Orthodox Judaism

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

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)

The far-right, ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party secured a raft of achievements in its coalition agreement with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which — if enacted — could have dramatic ramifications for Israel’s Jewish character and its system of governance.

Among the key clauses in the agreement between Religious Zionism and Likud are a commitment to pass a High Court override law designed to reduce judicial checks on executive and legislative power.

Other policy goals secured by Religious Zionism include a declarative, if somewhat vague, commitment to annexing the West Bank to Israel; legalization of dozens of unauthorized settlements; and the provision of large funds for road building and public transport in the West Bank.

The party also secured commitments to limit immigration under the Law of Return, delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions, and change discrimination laws to allow goods and service providers to refuse service based on religious belief.

As part of the coalition deal, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich will become finance minister and take up a new post of minister within the defense ministry, where he will oversee civil matters in the West Bank.

MK Ofir Sofer will become aliyah and absorption minister, MK Orit Strock will become national missions minister and MK Simcha Rothman will become head of the Knesset’s powerful Constitution, Justice and Law Committee.

A High Court of Justice hearing on a petition demanding that the maritime border deal with Lebanon be brought for a Knesset vote, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Below are some of the most significant aspects of the party’s coalition agreement with Likud. These agreements are not binding, and their clauses are often not implemented.

High Court override

Perhaps the single most important policy goal of Religious Zionism and its leader, incoming finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, has been to restrain the ability of the High Court of Justice to strike down Knesset legislation and reverse government decisions.

That goal is shared by many members of the incoming government.

The coalition agreement stipulates that legislation providing for a High Court override will be enacted by the new government, whereby the Knesset can re-legislate laws struck down by the High Court or legislate from the outset laws with immunity from judicial review.

The number of MKs required to utilize the High Court override clause is not stipulated. This matters, since a low number such as 61 MKs would give the executive and legislature virtually unrestrained power, whereas a higher number would leave the High Court with greater authority.

Changes to discrimination laws

The deal stipulates that legislation will be passed to allow business owners to refuse service to customers if they believe they would be violating their religious beliefs.

Critics have decried such a law, saying it would legalize discrimination against numerous groups and severely damage the fabric of Israeli society. Proponents in Religious Zionism such as MK Orit Strock say it is necessary to protect the religious principles of observant Jews.

The same law will also enshrine into law the right to hold publicly funded gender-segregated events.

West Bank annexation

“The Jewish people have a natural right to the Land of Israel,” reads the first clause of the settlements section of Religious Zionism’s agreement, while the first point in the Foundational Principles for the government as a whole states that “the Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.”

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, and party members in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

As such, continues the agreement, “the prime minister will lead the formulation and implementation of policy within the framework of which sovereignty will be applied to Judea and Samaria,” the biblical term for the West Bank.

That being said, the framing of the clause allows the prime minister to choose the timing for the implementation of such a policy and to take into consideration Israel’s “national and international interests.”

While this caveat makes annexation less likely, it is still thought to be the first time a coalition agreement has ever included a clause sanctioning annexation of the West Bank.

Settlement boons

The coalition agreement requires that the government legalize some 70 unauthorized settlements with approximately 25,000 residents within 60 days of its establishment, through legislation if necessary, and connects those settlements to water and electricity infrastructure.

It says a government resolution from 1996 requiring that the defense minister authorize the allocation of land for West Bank construction and the convening of the committee responsible for authorizing construction plans in the territory will be amended. The clause does not say how the resolution will be amended, but given Smotrich’s desire to increase settlement construction, it is likely Religious Zionism will seek to remove those authorizing powers from the defense minister’s hands.

Another critical part of the agreement is the transfer of power over the IDF’s bodies handling civil affairs in the West Bank — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration — to Smotrich. This will give him greater control over the construction and planning approval process for West Bank settlements; the ability to halt the evacuation and destruction of illegal settlement outposts; and the power to ramp up enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction.

The disengagement law of 2005 regarding the northern West Bank will be repealed to allow the yeshiva in the illegal Homesh outpost to be legalized and permit settlement in those areas evacuated under the terms of the nearly two-decade-old plan.

The illegal Evyatar settlement outpost will also be legalized, while the government will act to strengthen Jewish settlement in the city of Hebron.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, visits the illegal settlement outpost of Evyatar, in the West Bank, together with Nachala Settlement Movement leader director Tzvi Elimelech Sharbaf and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, on June 27, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

A budget of NIS 1.6 billion ($450 million) per year will be allocated for laying roads in the West Bank, part of Religious Zionism’s effort to reduce traffic accidents in the territory and improve quality of life in the settlements.

More Jewish, more Orthodox

Religious Zionism’s coalition agreement also includes numerous demands pertaining to Israel’s Jewish character.

One of the most important is plans to amend the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return, which allows any grandchildren of a Jew who are not themselves recognized as Jewish according to Jewish law the right to immigrate to Israel. Opponents of the grandchild clause claim that it allows non-Jews without any particular connection or care for the Jewish people to enter the country.

Religious Zionism, as well as the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, want to repeal this provision, although doing so would be highly controversial and is opposed by some members of the Likud.

The coalition agreement requires legislation on the issue to be prepared within 60 days of the establishment of the government by a special inter-ministerial committee. Although the deal does not specify exactly what the amendment will look like, the relevant clause asserts that the purpose of the Law of Return was specifically to bring Jews to Israel, while speaking of a need to minimize intermarriages.

The government will also pass a Basic Law for immigration as well as advance legislation to encourage asylum seekers and illegal migrants to leave the country — an issue that has been a long-term bugbear for the nationalist right and which led to numerous confrontations with the High Court of Justice.

Another clause will likely create difficulties for the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, which prays every month at the Western Wall. The clause states that prayer in the men’s and women’s sections of the holy site will be performed only in accordance with Orthodox customs, and that legislation will be passed if necessary to guarantee this state of affairs continues.

Members of the Women of the Wall, Conservative and Reform Movements hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, March 4, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Women of the Wall insists that it is a non-denominational group and a series of court rulings have upheld its right to pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall. The hostility of the administrator of the Western Wall as well as the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties of the coalition to Women of the Wall could endanger their monthly prayer services.

The future of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, south of the central plaza, used for non-Orthodox prayer, is not mentioned in the agreement.

Non-Orthodox and Independent Orthodox conversions to lose status

Several decisions by the High Court of Justice in recent years have granted converts who converted in Israel in independent Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion courts the right to citizenship under the Law of Return, as well as the right to be registered by the Interior Ministry as Jewish.

A clause in the coalition agreement states that the government will pass legislation stipulating that only conversions performed by the state conversion court under the auspices of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate will be granted state recognition.

This will likely revoke the rights obtained through the High Court by the non-Orthodox and independent Orthodox conversion courts.

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