Smotrich recorded describing ‘mega-dramatic’ plan for civilian control over West Bank

NYT report on recording says far-right minister told settlers that he’s acting in way so world ‘won’t say that we are doing annexation here,’ asserts Netanyahu is ‘with us full on’

Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a ceremony to inaugurate a new neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, July 12, 2022. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a ceremony to inaugurate a new neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, July 12, 2022. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was recently recorded telling settler supporters that the government is engaged in a clandestine effort to change the way Israel governs the West Bank, according to a report Friday that cited a recording of the far-right Religious Zionist party leader.

The New York Times said the recording was from an event held earlier in the month at which Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, told supporters that the goal was to prevent the West Bank from becoming part of a Palestinian state.

“I’m telling you, it’s mega-dramatic,” Smotrich was quoted as saying. “Such changes change a system’s DNA.”

A spokesman for Smotrich confirmed the authenticity of the recording, which the newspaper said was provided by a researcher from the Peace Now anti-settlement group who attended the June 9 event.

Parts of the West Bank are under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, while the Israeli military has authority over the rest. Smotrich, a vocal opponent of Palestinian statehood, has long pushed for Israel to annex those areas.

“My goal — and I think of everyone here — is to first and foremost prevent the establishment of a terror state in the very heart of the Land of Israel,” he said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich convenes the mayors of major West Bank settlements in the Finance Ministry to discuss opposition to a Palestinian state and efforts to increase settlement construction, May 8, 2024. (Courtesy: Office of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich)

In the recording, Smotrich described at length how he planned to transfer authority from the military to civilians under his authority in the Defense Ministry, where he was handed broad power as demanded in his Religious Zionism party’s coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

“We created a separate civilian system,” Smotrich said, adding that to deflect international scrutiny, the government has allowed the Defense Ministry to remain involved in the process, according to the Times.

“It will be easier to swallow in the international and legal context,” he continued. “So that they won’t say that we are doing annexation here.”

Smotrich also reportedly said that Netanyahu is “with us full on,” which the premier’s office appeared to push back on.

“The final status of these territories will be determined by the parties in direct negotiations,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement responding to his coalition partner’s remarks. “This policy has not changed.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a Knesset vote on the state budget, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Friday’s report on the recording came after the newspaper last month revealed an internal document in which the outgoing head of the Israel Defense Forces’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, accused Smotrich of completely undermining Israeli law enforcement efforts to clamp down on illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank.

Enforcement on illegal construction has dwindled “to the point where it has disappeared,” Fox wrote, highlighting the role of Smotrich. He also said Smotrich and his allies were blocking measures the government had promised Israeli courts it would implement, to crack down on illegal construction in the West Bank.

Israel has settled the West Bank extensively since 1967 when it captured the area from Jordan during the Six Day War, viewing it as the biblical Judea and Samaria and critical to Israel’s security. Netanyahu has promoted settlement growth, leading to friction with the United States.

The settlements take up West Bank land where Palestinians have long aimed to establish an independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and have East Jerusalem as its capital.

In April, Smotrich called on Netanyahu to annex the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority continues with its efforts for international recognition of a state and for what he said was its bid to obtain international arrest warrants against Israelis over the war in Gaza against Hamas.

Most Popular
read more: