Report: Smotrich to ask cabinet to approve $180m plan to expand settlements

Money includes millions for services like health, education and youth clubs, but also large amounts for promoting and enlarging Israel’s civilian footprint in the West Bank

Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich (center) and party members at the settlement of Efrat in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich (center) and party members at the settlement of Efrat in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich will reportedly seek government approval next week for a plan that would funnel hundreds of millions of shekels to settlements, including money to promote residency in the West Bank and significant funding for unrecognized outposts.

The plan was detailed in Hebrew media and by the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now on Thursday. Proposed by Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism Party, and Settlements Minister Orit Strock, who hails from his faction, it would allocate some NIS 670 million ($180 million) to supporting Israeli communities in the West Bank.

The money includes millions for services like health, education and youth clubs, but also large amounts for promoting and expanding Israel’s civilian footprint in the West Bank, including NIS 92 million ($24 million) in discretionary funding to be used at will, according to Peace Now, which said it received an advance copy of the proposal.

“Instead of investing in Israel’s future, the Israeli government is pouring money into settlements, perpetuating the occupation, and fueling the conflict and confrontation with the Palestinians,” the group said in a statement.

The proposal would funnel NIS 27 million ($7.1 million) to illegal outposts, some of which are unauthorized expansions of existing settlements, Peace Now said. Another NIS 28 million ($7.4 million) is allocated for settlements deep in the West Bank, and some settlements designated in the periphery will get part of another NIS 40 million ($10.5 million) for infrastructure upgrades and NIS 15 million ($4 million) to renovate buildings for Jewish studies.

Much of the funds can be used to expand the network of largely unauthorized ranches across the West Bank manned by Israeli extremists, often the source of tensions with Palestinians.

New housing projects in the West Bank Israeli settlement of Givat Ze’ev, June 18, 2023. (AP Photo/ Ohad Zwigenberg, File)

According to Channel 12 news, the proposal also includes funding to plan for construction in previously razed settlements in the northern West Bank. The government recently passed a law rolling back a ban on resettling four Israeli communities there that were evacuated in 2005.

And it includes money to transform Israel Defense Forces bases in the West Bank into civilian settlements, Channel 12 reported. Millions are allocated to refurbish and build educational institutions, which Peace Now notes are used as another form of settlement expansion, “taking up land, requiring security and defense measures, and housing dozens of settlers.”

The total, which is nearly 10 times the budget earmarked for settlements in 2016 according to the watchdog, jibes neatly with Religious Zionism’s agenda of expanding settlements and tightening Israel’s hold on the West Bank, making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible, according to observers.

The measure, which is largely based on coalition deals already agreed to, is expected to be voted on by the cabinet when it next meets following a summer hiatus.

The treasury chief, and the government at large, have been accused of affording extra resources to settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, constituencies that largely back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. The benefits have come at the expense of the general public, critics charge.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, which first reported on the plan Wednesday, the moves will be partly funded by shaving the budgets of some other ministries — including NIS 130 million ($35 million) from the Education Ministry and NIS 200 million ($53.5 million) from the Interior Ministry.

People at the Evyatar outpost in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Flash90)

Asked about the reported budget plan, US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel declined to comment but did repeat a regularly used talking point against the settlement enterprise.

“The expansion of settlements undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution,” he said. “It incites tensions and it further harms trust between the two parties.”

“We strongly oppose the advancements of settlements and urge Israel to refrain from this activity, including the promotion of outposts. We take this issue very seriously, and it impinges on the viability of a two-state solution,” he added.

Smotrich, in particular, has drawn accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers over his handling of Arab community budgets, as well as in East Jerusalem.

Earlier this month, the Religious Zionism head announced he was cutting NIS 200 million ($54 million) for an academic preparatory program – known in Hebrew as a mechina – aimed at Palestinian students from East Jerusalem.

However, he was reportedly forced to walk back the promise and released the funds after being pressured by Netanyahu, the Justice Ministry, and the National Security Council.

Smotrich also recently said he will not release another NIS 200 million aimed at development in Arab municipalities, claiming the cash will go to organized crime groups or be used to support terrorism. The funds — aimed at boosting the economy, upgrading infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities — were approved by the previous government, which included the Islamist Ra’am party alongside left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties that united in opposition to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has said the funding for Arab municipalities will go ahead, but with oversight.

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