US views looming transfer of West Bank powers to Smotrich as step toward annexation

As Netanyahu set to decide how to implement coalition deal stripping critical powers away from defense minister, visiting Biden aide warns against move

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)

A visiting senior US official urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government not to move forward with a plan to transfer key Defense Ministry powers relating to the West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, arguing that it would view the measure as a step toward annexation, an official familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The transfer of authority over the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration — two Defense Ministry bodies responsible for authorizing settlement construction, legalizing outposts and green-lighting demolitions of Palestinian homes — was enshrined in a coalition agreement that Netanyahu’s Likud signed with Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf warned Netanyahu’s senior aides last week against the move, the official familiar with the matter said, confirming a report in the Walla news site.

Critics have strongly denounced the move to transfer the extra powers to Smotrich, saying it would amount to de facto annexation of Area C because it would allow for Israeli citizens in the West Bank to be administered by a civilian body, rather than a military one, as is the case for Palestinians.

The Biden administration appears to subscribe to the position, with a State Department spokesman saying in response to the Walla report that the US opposes “unilateral actions” that undermine a two-state solution, including the additional application of Israeli civil law in the West Bank.

The transfer of powers to Smotrich has yet to be implemented, and Likud Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has quickly pushed back on the plan, saying ultimate decision-making powers must remain in his office. The disagreement led to a standoff last month when Gallant signed off on the demolition of an illegal outpost. The razing of the structures that had been erected overnight by young religious nationalist activists went ahead, even after Smotrich sent an urgent missive to the Civil Administration commander ordering him to cease the operation — revealing that Gallant still has the upper hand.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the latter’s office in Ramallah on June 11, 2022. (State Department/Twitter)

However, Netanyahu held a subsequent meeting with Gallant and Smotrich during which the latter demanded the implementation of the coalition agreement. Gallant, for his part, argued that he had not been a part of those negotiations. He also has the backing of the defense establishment.

At the same time, Smotrich may well have more leverage than Gallant, given that he heads a party large enough to bring down the government, in addition to being in control of the Treasury.

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