Smotrich refuses to attend meeting with IDF chief on transfer of West Bank powers

Accused of slighting Halevi, Smotrich says he didn’t attend in order to avoid mixing military and politics, amid ongoing tension in the coalition and with the army over his role

Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas's Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas's Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich refused to attend a meeting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Monday with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to discuss the transfer of some powers relating to the West Bank from Gallant’s office to Smotrich’s.

Smotrich’s absence was criticized as a slight against Halevi, who is opposed to granting the finance minister control over the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction and demolition of illegal Israeli and Palestinian construction in the IDF-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

Working around Smotrich’s non-compliance, Netanyahu held another meeting, after Halevi left, with just Gallant and Smotrich.

After news of Smotrich’s no-show was revealed by Channel 13, he issued a statement justifying the decision.

“The minister is very careful not to mix the army with politics,” Smotrich said.

Smotrich said the issue would be settled in the coming hours and that he has already held several meetings with Halevi on power transfer. Smotrich said he respected the IDF chief’s decision to offer his professional opinion against the move, but suggested that he did not need to be present when Halevi presented his position during the Monday meeting.

The coalition agreement Netanyahu’s Likud signed with Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism granted Religious Zionism control over the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration. However, the agreement has faced significant pushback from the security establishment as well as the Biden administration, and it has yet to be implemented, infuriating Smotrich.

Critics argue that handing control of West Bank authority to a civilian office headed by the finance minister would amount to de facto annexation.

In a recent conversation with Netanyahu, Halevi argued that the transfer of power would lead to a breakdown in the IDF command, Channel 13 reported on Thursday.

If the transfer takes place, Gallant and the IDF will remain in charge of security-related issues in the West Bank. Gallant could theoretically sign off on the demolition of an illegal settler outpost deemed to pose a security threat.

But if Smotrich — who has long advocated for legalizing outposts and annexing large parts of the West Bank — is given control of the Civil Administration and opposes such a demolition, a chaotic situation could ensue on the ground.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has also expressed legal reservations about the power transfer, given that Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank territory over which Smotrich seeks some authority. She has warned the government that the move demanded by Smotrich might not hold up in the High Court of Justice if a petition is filed against it.

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