Nine settlers will serve in the new Knesset, six of them because of the unprecedented electoral achievement of the Religious Zionism party. The party’s leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, live in settlements deep in the West Bank: Kedumim and Kiryat Arba, respectively.
The fact that the issue of Israeli policy in the West Bank has a starring role in its platform thus comes as no surprise. “Settlement and sovereignty,” it’s called there, and it is expected to be at the center of the party’s negotiations to join a new governing coalition.
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Religious Zionism leaders are expected to demand portfolios that will help them realize their goals. The most significant agency in this context is the Defense Ministry. The defense minister is the decisive factor in issues relating to policy in the West Bank. The minister also approves the convening of the national planning committee, which is responsible for building permits in the settlements. Members of the Yesha Council of settlements complained last year that the planning body meets infrequently, and Religious Zionism will likely try to change this.
The transportation portfolio is also in the party’s sights: When Smotrich controlled the ministry, there was unprecedented spending on infrastructure in the West Bank, particularly in road planning. Outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli boasted that she had stopped some of the plans, but work began on others that had been included in the state budget. One of Smotrich’s campaign promises was to restore these allocations.
During his tenure, Smotrich pursued goals such as doubling the number of lanes on a few West Bank roads, including Route 60, the main highway. Work to expand some of those roads began when he served as transportation minister, and has continued. The high accident rate and heavy traffic on West Bank roads disturb many settlers; Likud’s election campaign also addressed the issue.
Religious Zionism is also expected to demand the Construction and Housing Ministry, which is responsible for construction contracts in the large settlements, and the Interior Ministry, which grants control over regional councils’ budgets. Members of the party emphasized that its component parties, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, conduct separate coalition negotiations, but coordinate.
Two goals at the core of the Religious Zionism platform vis-a-vis territory in the West Bank are legalizing unauthorized settlement outposts and curbing Palestinian construction and agriculture in areas that are under Israeli civil as well as military control, according to the Oslo Accords. The “battle for Area C,” as the party calls it, seeks to block construction by Palestinians in these areas, where Israeli building and zoning laws apply.
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In recent years, both settlers and defense officials have argued that Palestinian building and farming amount to expropriation that must be stopped. About two weeks ago, and as part of its election campaign, Religious Zionism announced its proposal: passing a cabinet resolution defining unauthorized construction by Palestinians as a hostile act, creating positions for inspectors, expediting enforcement against illegal construction and adding additional means of inspection.
In the coalition agreement made by the outgoing government, 18.5 million shekels (about $5.2 million) were set aside for the Area C “battle.” This allocation was the result of the coalition agreement between Yamina and Yesh Atid, and was earmarked for payment to an additional 46 employees of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, 15 of whom were to join the inspection unit.
Israel enforces demolition orders at a higher rate against Palestinians than against settlers. According to data obtained by Haaretz, between May 2019 and the end of 2021, the Civil Administration carried out eight times as many demolition orders in the West Bank against new buildings built by Palestinians compared to those put up by settlers.
The plan also includes the renewal and regulation of land registration in the West Bank, a process that Israel stopped after it occupied the area in 1967. Settlers have an interest in this because it gives a certain advantage to those currently using the land, if they can prove they have been using it for a lengthy period without anyone else claiming it. Land registration is effectively final, and the appeal process is challenging. If there are no Palestinian claims on a specific parcel of land, it will be transferred to the state.
Religious Zionism has also promised to advance a master plan for the construction and expansion of settlements and to conduct a population census among the Palestinians in Areas C. The party considers a census is considered a necessary action in the event of the annexation of Area C , to make sure that Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank don’t move there.
As part of its campaign, the party presented stages by which unauthorized outposts will be legalized. The first is passage of a bill previously sponsored by Smotrich and party lawmaker Orit Strock. It sets a four-year deadline for legalizing outposts and provides for their connection to utilities in the meantime. The party also seeks to establish a regulatory body, with a director and a legal adviser, for this purpose. An additional component is an order allowing the immediate connection of outposts to the electricity grid.
The bill was proposed in the previous government, after Yamina lawmaker Nir Orbach pledged his support for a bill allowing unregistered homes to be connected to electricity on the condition that this also apply to the West Bank outposts. Defense Minister Benny Gantz gave his support, but declared that it would also apply to Palestinian towns. The Religious Zionism party announced that the bill would be rewritten so that it would not apply to Palestinian communities. The bill has yet to be signed.
There are two narrower issues that are of interest to Religious Zionism lawmakers. The first is Evyatar, an unauthorized outpost in the northern West Bank that was established in May 2021, in the last days of Netanyahu’s government, and abandoned two months later, in accordance with an agreement reached by then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Gantz with the settlers. A land survey conducted by the Civil Administration determined that 15 acres of the area could be declared state land and used for a yeshiva, but not a permanent community.
Gantz never declared the parcel to be state land, and members of the outgoing coalition have judged that in any event, the High Court of Justice would overturn the plan. Religious Zionism may demand the implementation of the plan – declaring the parcel state land and continuing the planning process. If the party receives the Defense Ministry, this is likely to happen.
Then there is Homesh, a settlement in the West Bank that was abandoned as part of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. It currently contains a yeshiva that has remained populated since the killing of Yehuda Dimentman in December sparked attempts to revive the outpost. Religious Zionism lawmakers have often expressed support for Homesh and have even called for the reversal of the disengagement, so they may demand – and receive – the continued operation of the yeshiva there.