Netanyahu gives Smotrich broad powers over settlements and Palestinian construction

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has granted far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich sweeping powers over Israeli settlements and Palestinian construction in the West Bank as part of a coalition deal signed Wednesday between Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party and Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Under the agreement, power on Divisions of settlements and open lands in the strong Civil Administration and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) A party spokesperson confirmed that the unit would be handed over to a Minister of Religious Zionism based in the Ministry of Defense.

Channel 12 reported that this minister would likely be Smotrich himself, who would also take over the Treasury under the agreement, though the party said that was not finalized yet.

The sensitive appointment would give religious Zionism control over key aspects of civic life in Area C of the West Bank, including parts of the civil administration that governs Israeli and Palestinian construction there. Some have criticized the prospect of handing over such powers to religious Zionism, with its pro-annexation agenda, as tantamount to annexing areas in the West Bank.

Signed after a series of deadlocks and marathon meetings, Smotrich’s party also grants the Finance Ministry, an additional ministry to handle unspecified “national tasks,” and an influential position to sponsor judicial reform through the Knesset, among other promises.

The appointment of a Minister of Religious Zionism as head of settlement work in COGAT could change the command structure of the critical unit. Instead of appealing to the Minister of Defense for changes, the ministers will have to turn to the Minister of Religious Zionism, in coordination with Netanyahu.

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A statement from the Likud party announcing the deal said the minister would be “responsible for settlement in Judea and Samaria.” The Likud statement confirmed that the Minister of Religious Zionism in the Ministry of Defense will work in coordination with Netanyahu.

Likud Leader, MK Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks with Religious Zionism Party Chairman Bezalel Smotrich, as party leaders pose for a group photo during the swearing-in ceremony in the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In addition to his party’s control over Jewish construction and the destruction of unauthorized Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank, Smotrich will serve as finance minister, rotating with Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who is expected to start work in the interior and health ministries. Once the government passes legislation to give him a ministerial position despite his suspended sentence for tax offences.

Religious Zionism Lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the party’s sweeping plan to clip the wings of the judiciary, will head the Knesset’s influential Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a key stop for judicial reform legislation.

Smotrich’s hardline party will receive the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption and the newly named Ministry of National Missions, whose responsibilities have not yet been detailed. Lawmaker Ofir Sofer is expected to take care of Jewish immigration, while MK Orit Struck will head the National Missions Ministry and possibly take on another ministry at a later time, according to Channel 12.

Additional areas of agreement include “Jewish identity, education, law, settlement and community,” though the Likud statement did not provide further details.

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Upon signing the agreement, Likud’s Netanyahu said the agreement is “another important step that brings us closer to establishing a national right-wing government that will take care of all of Israel’s citizens.”

Smotrich said the deal is a “historic step” toward forming a “Jewish, Zionist and national” government that aims to reform the judiciary, develop settlements and “strengthen Jewish identity in the spirit of religious Zionism.”

He added, “Together we will do a lot of good for the State of Israel and work hard for the citizens of Israel, all of them.”

The religious-Zionist Likud deal is the third to be signed with a coalition party, although not all of it is complete in its details. Shas and United Torah Judaism have yet to sign an agreement with Likud.

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