Far-right Representative in Defense Ministry Will Call West Bank Shots at Military's Expense

Benjamin Netanyahu and Religious Zionism's new coalition deal hands Bezalel Smotrich the power to name two key officers who oversee Israeli control of the West Bank through a special representative in the Defense Ministry

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Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers, Jerusalem, last month.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers, Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov /AP

Far-right party Religious Zionism and Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud agreed to hand Bezalel Smotrich the power to name the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) as well as the head of the Civil Administration under the terms of the coalition agreement between the parties released on Monday, a move which could dramatically alter everyday life in the West Bank and deepen Israel's settlement enterprise.

In response to the agreement, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Netanyahu has "sold the Israel Defense Forces to the Haredi nationalists."

Under the accord, a minister from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, who has yet to be named but is likely to be Smotrich himself, will have the authority to nominate candidates for the two positions, subject to the prime minister’s consent. Likud and Religious Zionism will later draw up a formal procedure that brings the defense minister and the Israeli military's chief of staff into the process, too.

The agreement further calls for the appointment of a Religious Zionism representative in the Defense Ministry "to be given complete responsibility for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, areas of operation and the head of the Civil Administration.” The minister in the Defense Ministry named by Religious Zionism will oversee an independent administration to implement his policies from within the ministry.

The terms of the coalition deal could radically alter the selection process of the two key roles, which operate as part of the military and are staffed by officers, giving politicians a say over their appointment for the first time. The Civil Administration is headed by an army officer with the rank of brigadier general who is named by the chief of staff, while the post of coordinator, who has the rank of major general, is chosen by the chief of staff in coordination with the defense minister.

Currently, the chief of staff selects the head of the Civil Administration on his own, with no involvement whatsoever by the government. COGAT is selected by the chief of staff together with the defense minister, and is the only army officer subordinate to the defense minister rather than the chief of staff.

However, the accord also states that these appointments will be coordinated and agreed upon with Netanyahu, who could rein in Smotrich’s influence.

A further clause in the coalition pact states that the Religious Zionism minister in the Defense Ministry will approve the state’s response submitted to the High Court on issues under the minister’s responsibility – among other things, illegal construction in the West Bank – in coordination with the defense minister and prime minister.

Netanyahu's decision to appoint a representative of Religious Zionism to the Defense Ministry is expected to have a dramatic effect on everyday life in the West Bank, and is expected to lead to the further expansion of Jewish settlements while drawing criticism from the international community.

The Civil Administration is responsible for approving Palestinian construction plans and settlement construction in Area C. The Administration's inspection department is responsible for detecting illegal construction and is the one that, among other things, cracks down on illegal outposts, for which Smotrich and his party have expressed support many times.

The administration is also responsible for issuing work permits to Palestinian laborers as well as liaising with the Palestinian Authority on issues related to security coordination and building infrastructure such as roads or a water network.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in a statement addressed to the next defense minister, warned, "If you take the position as it is given to you, you will become the contractor for the dismantling of the defense system and the IDF – you will be a dollar store defense minister – you will bear the mark of Cain."

Speaking at meeting of Yesh Atid lawmakers, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid said "We are not your suckers. We are not here just to pay taxes and send our children to the army. Most of the people are against this conduct, including Likud supporters. Netanyahu is handing the keys to the country to Maoz and Ben-Gvir and Smotrich."

Former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that the agreement "Undermines the authority and responsibility of the chief of Staff and the Minister of Defense," and that it "includes the transfer of powers [in the territories] to a minister who is not the Minister of Defense, is an unprecedented act in the history of the Israeli Defense Forces and the security establishment."

The Likud party's spokesperson, however, emphasized that "the powers of COGAT and the Civil Administration will remain under the Defense Ministry" without "changing the political or legal status of the [West Bank]."

"After years of discriminating against settlers, the government led by Netanyahu will correct the historical injustice," a Likud spokesperson said.

"The new arrangement will enable a better and more efficient service for the citizens of Israel in Judea and Samaria, something that has been demanded for years, without changing the political status quo there," they said, referring to the West Bank," the spokesperson added.

But in an interview with 103 FM, Smotrich argued that "An army should not manage civilians ... The powers the Ministry of Defense has over civilian matters today – it's wrong."

"The Defense Minister should deal with security challenges facing Israel," he said, saying the new deal with Netanyahu "removes the headache of managing civilian life from the Defense Ministry."

Senior White House officials recently warned Israel that transferring responsibility for the Civil Administration from the defense minister could hurt bilateral relations and endanger cooperation between Israel and the United States on dealing with regional challenges, including the threat posed by Iran.

Rotation at the treasury, more portfolios

Other sections of the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism deal with the other portfolios Smotrich’s party will receive. Among other things, Smotrich will be named finance minister for the first half of the government’s term, with Shas leader Arye Dery taking over the portfolio in the second half. Smotrich will then assume control of the Interior Ministry. In addition, his party will “the Health Ministry or another portfolio, subject to agreement by the prime minister.”

Officials in both parties said the second ministry would be Education while those close to Smotrich said it would be transportation. The final decision will be Netanyahu’s.

In exchange for letting Smotrich to serve as finance minister first in the rotation, Dery won a commitment from Smotrich to show Netanyahu and Dery the Arrangements Law – the bill passed annually alongside the state budget – in its entirety before it is submitted to the Knesset. That will ensure that Dery is able to control the major reforms that are included in it.

The agreement also transfers the so-called Jewish Identity Administration from the Religious Services Ministry into the Settlement Affairs Ministry, whose name is being changed to the National Missions Ministry. It will be led by a Religious Zionism politician.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry’s Jewish Culture unit, which generally commands a budget upwards of 100 million shekels towards public programming, will also come under the National Missions Ministry’s purview.

The party will further receive almost exclusive authority in determining the members of the education council overseeing the state-religious education system, which outlines education policy in government-managed religious schools. The council has the authority to dismiss school inspectors, principles and teachers working in schools under their purview.

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