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Locking Horns, Netanyahu's Defense Min. and Far-right Ally Could Bring Israel to Its Knees

The battle between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Bezalel Smotrich over who wields authority in the West Bank could exacerbate the already fraught situation with the Palestinians

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (C), during their meeting, on Tuesday.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (C), during their meeting, on Tuesday.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The battle over who wields authority in the West Bank between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, continues despite the frequent declarations of willingness to reach a solution. The tension between the ministers is also affecting the government’s performance in the territories and could exacerbate the already fraught situation with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the two to attend a meeting on the matter Tuesday evening, in an attempt to find a compromise between them.

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Likud’s coalition agreement with the Religious Zionism party promised Smotrich, its chair, far-reaching and unprecedented authority, giving him sole responsibility over the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories as well as the Civil Administration in the West Bank, thus eroding Gallant’s standing as defense minister.

But even though Smotrich holds greater political power in the government, it appears that Gallant does not intend to give up all his authority in the territories without a fight. The defense minister conveyed messages to this effect to the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and to top COGAT officials.

Meanwhile, Smotrich and his people held a tense meeting last week with the head of COGAT, Maj. Gen. Ghasan Alyan and his officers. Even if Gallant and the army receive a directive from Netanyahu not to cause problems, the transition process looks to be a rocky one.

The potential for this dispute to make life difficult for the government was already illustrated last weekend, with the erection of the illegal (and very temporary) Or Haim settlement outpost in the Ramallah area. The people who set up the outpost were cheered on by ministers from Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, but went ahead without any coordination with the army or the Defense Ministry.

On Friday morning, in a phone call between Gallant and Netanyahu, a decision was taken to immediately dismantle the outpost. One factor behind the decision was probably the presence in Israel at the time of U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and a desire to avoid embarrassing the Americans. Smotrich, who was not involved in the decision to take down the outpost, subsequently issued a statement saying he had instructed Alyan to pause the evacuation until Smotrich could convene a meeting to discuss the issue after the weekend. He assailed Gallant for acting “in total contradiction to the coalition agreements.”

In this case, the prime minister chose to back Gallant, who had acted in coordination with him. Netanyahu announced that the government “supports settlement only when it is done legally” and boasted that his government had already demolished 38 Palestinian structures that were built without a permit in Area C of the West Bank, territory that according to the Oslo Accords is under exclusive Israeli control.

Smotrich’s brother Tuvia Smotrich responded with a mocking post on Twitter and warned, in another tweet, that Gallant “will learn the hard way” about his brother, just as Netanyahu did. Smotrich’s political partner, the Otzma Yehudit party chief National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, promptly renewed his call for the evacuation of the West Bank Palestinian village Khan al-Ahmar. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon despite Netanyahu’s promises, because it would greatly escalate tensions with the international community. Ben-Gvir is well aware of this too, but he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to troll Netanyahu a little.

In summary: The defense minister and the minister in his office issued completely contradictory orders; the military chose to heed the first minister’s orders; the prime minister backed him up, but as a result was attacked by the second minister’s family. In the wake of the incident, lawyer Avia Alef, chair of the good-government nonprofit organization Movement for Integrity (Telem), whose Hebrew name is Hatnuah Letohar Hamidot, wrote to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and requested that she publicly clarify the boundaries of authority between the two ministers.

The attorney general has yet to reply, probably for the simple reason that the division of authority has yet to be settled. Telem co-leader Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Orr, a former COGAT, also signed the letter. Alef and Orr are calling attention to the heart of the problem: Contradictory orders to the army from two competing ministers whose authorities have not been properly delineated are liable to cause critical security and diplomatic harm. From his many years of service in the territories, Orr knows well that without close synchronization among the various security bodies, and without a unified chain of command, it will be impossible to manage this mess.

All this is of less concern to Netanyahu, especially when he is completely consumed with his headlong race to carry out his judicial revolution. The tricky part for him is that it’s very doubtful that Smotrich will give in. He and his partners and supporters are focusing much of their energy toward changing the legal situation in the West Bank, together with creating facts on the ground, for the benefit of the settlers.

The outpost affair may just spur him to rev up his efforts. And all this is happening as Military Intelligence and Shin Bet security service assessments note the growing possibility of another eruption of hostilities with the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank in early April, when the holy month of Ramadan and the weeklong Passover festival coincide.

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