Smotrich threatens to withhold defense funding to further his demands — report

Religious Zionism leader leveraged position during budget negotiations, telling security officials, ‘Remember that I am the finance minister and I also want something,’ report says

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich threatened to withhold funding for defense in order to further his own demands during budget negotiations with security officials, according to a Friday report.

Smotrich, who is also a minister in the defense ministry, has been locked in a running battle with security officials over West Bank authority. This week, Smotrich was granted sweeping powers over civilian issues in the territory, and the cabinet approved a two-year budget.

“My friends, no problem. You’re coming to me with requests for additions to the budget,” Smotrich said at one meeting with defense officials, Channel 12 reported. “I have no problem giving you what you want, but remember that I am the finance minister and I also want something.”

“Remember who I am,” Smotrich told them.

Security officials were astonished by Smotrich’s conduct during the negotiations as he demanded he receive power promised to him during coalition negotiations before the government took power, the Channel 12 report said.

Smotrich also demanded the ability to appoint officers in the Civil Administration’s chain of command, but Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told him that it would cause “damage to the security of the state,” and Smotrich relented, the report said.

Senior officials told Channel 12 that Smotrich’s new West Bank authority “will cause huge problems. It’s a serious incident and will harm the security of the country.”

The Defense Ministry eventually received expanded funding in the budget.

Smotrich has waged an extended internal battle within the coalition over West Bank authority, and has repeatedly clashed with Gallant over power and policy in the territory.

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

The agreement reached this week between Smotrich and Gallant appears to give the ultranationalist leader sweeping powers over the West Bank, and will allow him to advance his goal of thwarting Palestinian aspirations for a state in the West Bank by enabling increased settlement construction and blocking Palestinian development.

The deal came after two months of tension within the coalition between Smotrich and Gallant due to enforcement action taken by Gallant against illegal settler activity, as well as explicit commitments in the coalition agreements to transfer the powers to Smotrich.

Smotrich’s new authority over civilian issues in the West Bank includes enforcement powers over illegal construction, authority over planning and construction for settlements and land allocation matters.

Critics say that handing Smotrich authority over the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction, amounts to de facto annexation.

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.

A general view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat, Monday, January 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The government is seeking to advance the highly controversial E1 settlement project that would bisect Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank. The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee convened for the first time this week since the establishment of the new government, advancing plans for 7,157 new settler homes, the largest number ever authorized in one sitting.

The cabinet on Friday voted to approve the two-year budget for 2023 and 2024, readying it for a Knesset vote for final approval.

The budget for 2023 will stand at NIS 484 billion ($131.3 billion) — an $8.55 billion increase from last year — before climbing to NIS 514 billion ($139.5 billion) in 2024.

One of the budget’s biggest beneficiaries was National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, whose office is set to receive a $2.44 billion boost.

The extra money will be used to recruit thousands of additional police officers, over 1,200 new prison guards and hundreds of firefighters. It will also allow a pay raise for police officers and prison guards in the coming year, in addition to the establishment of a national guard.

Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, received expanded powers in his ministry as part of his coalition deal. Defense officials have also warned that his authority and policy threaten Israeli security.

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