Netanyahu appointed Smotrich as de facto West Bank minister – a gamble

In four pages of fine print, the “addendum” to the coalition agreement signed and circulated earlier this week by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Bezalel Smotrich’s Hatzionut HaDatit party gives the latter powers equivalent to those of a West Bank prime minister. . Rather, as Smotrich himself says, the prime minister of biblical Judea and Samaria.

Paragraph 6.4 states that the Hatzionout HaDatit party will appoint a minister within the Ministry of Defense who will be “responsible for the intervention areas” of COGAT (coordinator of activities in the territories) and the Ministry of Civil Defense. management. Smotrich does not hide his desire to take on this new function in the Ministry of Defense, a role with great powers, in addition, he will head the Ministry of Finance, he has retained the offices and personnel of the two ministries. ministries. (COGAT is, in short, a division of the Ministry of Defense that administers the West Bank; the Civil Administration integrated into COGAT is a kind of equivalent of government ministries and handles matters related to the Israeli population and the Palestinians. The West Bank, as well as the area where Israeli settlements are located Issuance of building permits in area C with 60%).

And if paragraph 6.4 is not clear enough, paragraph 21 of the second paragraph states that “Within the Ministry of Defense, the above-mentioned minister will be fully responsible for the areas of intervention of COGAT and the Civil Administration.”.

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The agreement also states elsewhere that the new minister will be responsible for appointing the heads of COGAT and the Civil Administration. The appointment of the head of COGAT has until now been entrusted to the defense minister, which also underlines the diminished role of the defense minister and an unprecedented devolution of powers to this second defense minister.

There is a downside. Liberally sprinkled throughout the contract, in subtly variable wording, are statements stipulating that Smotrich’s new powers and recent moves will be subject to “prime ministerial approval,” the prime minister’s “approval,” or the prime minister’s “concurrence.”

The agreement transparently confirms the political context in which the “negotiations took place”: on the one hand, there is Smotrich, who grew up in Beit El and lives in Kedumin, campaigning relentlessly for the establishment of full Jewish sovereignty for the Jews. is the biblical land of Israel as a whole, and he is determined to use his post-election influence to achieve what he sees as the fulfillment of God’s will. On the other hand, there is the future Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose parliamentary majority – undisputedly – depends on the support provided by all the right, far-right and ultra-Orthodox components. Among the members of this coalition, Smotrich clearly seems the most uncompromising and the most determined.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with HaTzionout HaDatit party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

I use the word “negotiations” in quotation marks because when reading the agreement reached between Likud and Hatzionout HaDatit, it is almost possible to hear Smotrich and his representatives saying “we want this, this and this” – be it Smotrich’s Yehuda and Smotrich have great authority over it. Samaria, his deputy minister and appointment as sole titular chairman of the Ministerial Settlement Commission in Netanyahu’s absence, additional settlement-related duties through the now newly named Ministry of National Missions, oversight of the state’s Orthodox education system, Authority “Jewish culture” education…

It’s almost possible to hear the Likud representatives who Netanyahu told to keep the deal at all costs saying, “Okay, okay, go get it.”

What happened during the months of these negotiations, which were interrupted several times before continuing, and which will result in this agreement, is, in other words, the story of the prime ministerial candidate who wants to close himself ideologically the most. an inflexible coalition partner, abandoning the shop—in this case, the West Bank—essentially. And – there is still a downside – betting that he knows how to avoid at least the most serious consequences of his weaknesses.

The fact is that Israel’s political history is littered with broken coalition agreements – as Netanyahu knows better than anyone. Let’s recall the absurdly complex coalition agreement he struck with Benny Gantz in April 2020, which allowed him to invest in a “unity government” the following month. Had Netanyahu followed through on this deal, as Netanyahu solemnly promised him, Gantz would have been prime minister today for more than a year.

Undoubtedly, after his coalition is sworn in, Netanyahu will at least try to apply all these clauses “subject to the approval of the prime minister” on issues where he disagrees with Smotrich. No doubt it will also urge Smotrich and the other dangerous extremists he helped to legitimize and who today are set to become ministers of the State of Israel to embrace the larger context in which Israel is changing and managing their activities accordingly.

He is likely to emphasize the importance of maintaining the closest possible ties with the Biden administration in order to prevent the Iranian regime’s inexorable progress toward nuclear weapons, and to create a potential opportunity to formalize at least some form of relationship with Saudi Arabia. Other important interests of Israel. He will point out that the Jewish state cannot afford a major crisis with the Palestinians that Smotrich’s attempts to impose his inflexible agenda on the land of Israel could bring, and the country cannot afford the luxury of a crisis with the Muslim world. Ben Gvir’s allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount will likely trigger the case.

HaRouah HaTzionite leader Bezalel Smotrich arrives at a coalition negotiation meeting in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the scale and extent of the commitments given to Smotrich in the West Bank — and Netanyahu’s clear assessment that he cannot form a coalition unless the far-right leader responds favorably to the demands presented by him, at least in principle — have affected Smotrich’s influence and the four pages of the agreement between Likud and Hatzionout HaDatit. indicate the importance of the risk:

Netanyahu is a remarkable, worldly, shrewd, eloquent, tireless politician, and he is usually several steps ahead of all his rivals. But he is in the process of forming a government that gives Smotrich all the powers he needs to achieve his goals—first by legalizing outposts and major expansion of settlements, and finally by his annexation. All of the West Bank with very limited rights granted to Palestinians. This will cause an earthquake in the region, an earthquake that only Netanyahu can prevent. At the same time, he has announced that Ben Gvir wants to relax ammunition regulations, but has proposed unprecedented controls over police and Border Patrol forces stationed in the West Bank – again, only Netanyahu can stop him.

The politically dependent 73-year-old will bear the responsibility of taming the flames of ambitious, powerful forces that are now extremely powerful. This man, who is willing to damage the justice system in order to get rid of the corruption trial, will also have to fight against the opposition, a large part of the Jews in the country and in the Diaspora. the demands of the ultra-Orthodox, who demanded exemption from military service and wanted to further degrade the status of non-Orthodox Judaism.

A December 4, 2022, screenshot from a video of alleged new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” (YouTube. Used in accordance with Article 27a of the Copyright Act)

Don’t worry, Netanyahu has told the American public in a series of recent interviews — understandably preferring the softer questions asked by American journalists to the harsh questions asked by sections of the Israeli media. mainstream. He has vowed never to allow the LGBT community to be endangered, even as he hands the next vice minister, Avi Mao, significant powers (and especially over the curriculum taught in schools) and is staunchly anti-LGBT. He vowed that he would not allow Israel to become a theocracy, as Smotrich called for. He has vowed to protect Israeli democracy, even as the parties in his fledgling coalition are unanimous in backing a law that would dramatically undermine the Supreme Court’s powers and even reduce it to its limits. Of course, appointing Hatzionut HaDatit’s leader as head of the Ministry of Defense was never out of the question, he quipped, neglecting to mention the powers he later gave to Smotrich.

Don’t worry, Netanyahu could certainly insist in the face of Smotrich’s new role, and in the face of his own weakness – a weakness revealed by accepting all of the far-right lawmaker’s demands. After all, he can point out that, as the agreement with Smotrich makes clear, he will have the necessary tools to curb the prime minister’s ambitions as Israel’s prime minister. de facto of the West Coast.

A task that seems overwhelming even for the remarkable Netanyahu. And today the fate of Israel is at stake.

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