Netanyahu Agrees to Hand Far-right Ally Smotrich Control Over Israel's Administration of the West Bank

The Civil Administration, which Religious Zionism will be responsible for in Israel's next government, oversees coordination of government activity in the West Bank. However, coalition talks remain stuck due to Smotrich's demand to control the Jewish Conversion Authority

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Bezalel Smotrich.
Archive photo of Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Israel's designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to grant Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism authority over the Civil Administration which oversees construction, infrastructure and security coordination in the West Bank.

The agreement was reached as part of coalition talks between Netanyahu's Likud and Religious Zionism which stalled once more after the parties failed to reach agreement on several other key issues.

Likud has acceded to Religious Zionism's demand for some of the powers of the Civil Administration, which is under the Defense Ministry. The details have not yet been worked out. Likud is demanding that any be move related to the Administration must be agreed upon in advance between Netanyahu and Smotrich, a demand Religious Zionism reject.

The 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.

West Bank outpost of Migron.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Other outstanding issues in the talks between the parties include the proposed rotation of the finance portfolio between Smotrich and Shas party leader Arye Dery. Sources close to the negotiations say Likud officials are accusing Smotrich of making excessive demands, while their counterparts in Religious Zionism claim that Likud has gone back on agreements reached earlier.

Likud and Shas agreed that Dery's party will receive the Health Ministry, but not the transportation portfolio, as had been expected.

Officials in Religious Zionism claimed Wednesday that the party acceded to Netanyahu's requests to forgo the defense portfolio in exchange for the Finance Ministry with responsibility for settlements and the Civil Administration; rotate the finance, interior and transportation portfolios; forgo the education portfolio and settle for responsibility for state-religious education; and forgo the religious services portfolio.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by Arye Dery, left, and Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem last week.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

However, they said, Netanyahu withdrew from all their previous agreements. "We give up and compromise a lot, but we have red lines," the party said in a statement. "We will not surrender to edicts and slander, we will not be pressured and we will not concede on the important things," Religious Zionism said, adding that it recommends to Likud that it "begin to conduct serious negotiations."

In response, Likud implored Smotrich that "on the second day in a row of murderous terrorist attacks, he should quit hunting for jobs and ministries. The public needs a government that will restore security, so let's form a fully right wing government as early as tonight."

According to sources who are involved in the talks, Smotrich is demanding that Likud reassign specific departments in other government ministers to ministries that Religious Zionism will control, among other reasons on the grounds that he agreed to withdraw his demand for the Religious Services Ministry.

He also seeks responsibility for the Education Ministry department that supervises state-religious schools including the authority to appoint its head, and similar control over the Jewish Conversion Authority, which is currently in the Prime Minister's Office. Smotrich is also demanding a number of units in the Foreign Ministry. "He wants to dismantle half of the government ministries," said one source involved in the coalition talks, who requested anonymity.

Religious soldier in IDF ceremony Credit: Ilan Assayag

Religious Zionism is also demanding control of four of the 11 Knesset committees that are expected to be in the hands of the future governing coalition. Likud is refusing this demand.

The main dispute between the parties remains the finance portfolio. As reported by Haaretz on Tuesday night, Dery and Smotrich are considering rotating the position between them, but they disagree over the mechanics. Sources involved in the talks say Dery is willing for Smotrich to take the first shift, but doesn't want to wait two years for his own turn. One of the options raised is for Smotrich to serve in the position until the end of 2023, followed by Dery for two years and Smotrich for the final year. Smotrich insists on serving for two years before handing off to the Shas leader.

The dispute over cabinet positions doesn't end there. Dery hopes to be appointed interior minister, with expanded powers, and as noted he is not expected to also receive the transportation portfolio.

Smotrich, on the other hand, is demanding both the interior and the transportation ministries. Netanyahu currently wants to keep the latter for Likud and not offer it to any of his coalition partners.

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