Left-wing groups: Deal means 'de jure West Bank annexation '

Smotrich handed sweeping powers over West Bank, control over settlement planning

Agreement will allow Religious Zionism head to entrench Israel’s West Bank presence and thwart Palestinian development, though caveats appear to preserve some authority for Gallant

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Minstry Bezalel Smotrich (second from right), and with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (third from right), after they signed an agreement transferring authorities for civilian affairs in the West Bank to Smotrich, February 23, 2023. (Courtesy: Office of the Finance Minister)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Minstry Bezalel Smotrich (second from right), and with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (third from right), after they signed an agreement transferring authorities for civilian affairs in the West Bank to Smotrich, February 23, 2023. (Courtesy: Office of the Finance Minister)

Religious Zionism leader and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been handed broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, enabling him to deepen Israel’s presence in the West Bank, increase settlement construction and thwart Palestinian development.

The authorities being transferred to Smotrich — following an extended internal coalition battle over the issue — include enforcement powers over illegal construction, authority over planning and construction for settlements and land allocation matters.

The agreement between Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appears to give the ultranationalist leader sweeping powers over the territory, and allow him to advance his goal of thwarting Palestinian aspirations for a state in the West Bank by enabling the Israeli population there to substantially expand.

The agreement was denounced by left-wing, anti-settlement organizations, including Yesh Din, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, and Breaking the Silence, which said it amounted to “legal, de jure annexation,” of the West Bank.

Smotrich himself celebrated the agreement as “a holiday for the residents of Judea and Samaria,” using the West Bank’s biblical name, while the Yesha Council representing settlements said the deal was “important news for the settlement enterprise.”

The deal comes after two months of tensions within the coalition between Gallant and Smotrich, who also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry, due to enforcement action taken by Gallant against illegal settler activity, as well as explicit commitments in the coalition agreements to transfer these powers to Smotrich.

Minister of Finance and Head of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting in the Jewish settlement of Givat Harel, in the West Bank, February 14, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Certain clauses and caveats in the deal nevertheless appear to preserve Gallant’s authority over several issues — a situation that could lead to further tensions with Smotrich in the future.

According to the agreement, Smotrich, as “a minister in the Defense Ministry,” will be given authority over numerous responsibilities of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, the two Defense Ministry agencies in charge of civilian affairs in Area C of the West Bank where Israel has full security and civilian control.

As part of the new arrangement, a Settlements Administration will be established within the Defense Ministry under Smotrich’s authority, which will “manage and direct” such activities in the Civil Administration and COGAT.

A civilian deputy head selected by Smotrich will be appointed to the Civil Administration and “professionally subordinate” to the head of a Settlements Administration, who is in turn subordinate to Smotrich. However, in terms of the chain of command, the civilian deputy will be subordinate to the head of the Civil Administration, an IDF officer, according to the agreement.

The civilian deputy will have control over the enforcement unit of the Civil Administration for illegal construction, although the agreement states that “enforcement policy” in the West Bank will be determined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with Gallant and Smotrich.

Smotrich’s control over enforcement of illegal construction is likely to lead to a situation in which illegal settlement outposts are not removed as they have been in the past, but illegal Palestinian construction is swiftly demolished.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant arrives for a government meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This deal hands the Religious Zionism leader control over one of the key parts of his campaign against what the ultranationalist right claims to be a widespread program of illegal Palestinian construction in Area C.

Official statistics from the Civil Administration indicate however a far lower level of illegal Palestinian construction than claimed by settlement activists and right-wing NGOs.

But a caveat in the Gallant-Smotrich agreement allows the IDF commander of the army’s Central Command to order the enforcement unit to carry out enforcement activities which have “security urgency” in the case of a new effort to take control over land or buildings.

In such an eventuality, the head of the enforcement unit would inform the civilian deputy in the Civil Administration. Disagreement over such a situation would be brought for a decision to Smotrich and Gallant, and if necessary to Netanyahu as well.

This clause could conceivably become a source of friction, if, for example, the IDF command deemed a new settlement outpost to have security implications.

Another crucial responsibility transferred to Smotrich is authority over the planning and construction bureaucracy in the West Bank, which will come under the control of the new Settlements Administration, according to a statement by Smotrich’s office.

View of the Israeli outpost of Shvut Rachel, in the West Bank, January 30, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

This includes the crucial authority to convene the Higher Planning Committee which authorizes construction plans for settlements, and in theory legal Palestinian construction, although such requests are almost never approved.

Smotrich will also have full authority over land purchases, land surveys and the registration of land as state land in Area C, according to his office. He will also have the authority to develop what has previously been determined to be nature reserves in the West Bank, or declare other areas to be nature reserves.

Despite this array of authorities now under Smotrich’s control, the agreement stipulates that the defense minister is entitled to use his authority to intervene in Smotrich’s decisions under certain circumstances, after having presented his reasoning in writing and having heard the position of the additional minister.

“If, after acting as stated, the defense minister deems it appropriate to change the decision of the additional minister, he will do so through the additional minister and not directly through COGAT or the Civil Administration,” and the additional minister will then direct those agencies “accordingly and immediately.”

This caveat could also become a source of friction between Gallant and Smotrich.

Nevertheless, Smotrich celebrated the deal and thanked Netanyahu for following through on the coalition agreements.

“I thank the prime minister who understood the importance of the issue during the coalition negotiations,” said Smotrich following the signing. “Citizens of Judea and Samaria will [now] receive equal treatment and equal citizenship. I thank Minister Gallant for the agreements and I am confident that we will know how to work optimally for the citizens of Israel. We have a long road ahead of us, but this is a holiday for the residents of Judea and Samaria and a holiday for the State of Israel.”

In a joint statement, the Yesh Din, Association of Civil Rights in Israel and Breaking the Silence organizations denounced the agreement.

“This is a dramatic change in the structure of governance [over the West Bank], since very broad areas of management and administration pertaining to the majority of the governing powers in the West Bank, will be transferred in this agreement into hands of someone other than the military commander of the occupied territory, and will from now on be held by the minister in the Defense Ministry who will de facto serve as the governor of the West Bank,” asserted the organizations. “In doing so, Israel will be carrying out a legal, de jure, annexation of the West Bank.”

National Unity party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz blasted Netanyahu over the deal.

“The responsibility for dismantling the IDF and Defense Ministry is on Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Gantz, a former IDF chief, wrote on Twitter. “This is a decision that will rip apart the chain of command, harm the security of Israeli citizens and our international standing.”

He also charged that since Israel’s founding, “Netanyahu is the first prime minister… who put politics over security,” adding, “May every Hebrew mother know that the fate of her son and our security has been forfeited to irresponsible politicians.”

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