There is a fox in the henhouse. Benjamin Netanyahu let it in.
In the course of the Israeli government coalition negotiations, the Religious Zionism party’s leader Bezalel Smotrich foxed his way to a position that would allow him to implement his plan to become the settlement tsar in Netanyahu’s government and de-facto annex the settlements and the settlers to Israel.
By doing so, Smotrich will be in a position to make good on his party’s annexationist platform and establish irreversible facts on the ground in the West Bank.
Smotrich’s plan is explicit. It recognizes Washington’s staunch opposition to de-jure annexation. It states, “We must promote de-facto sovereignty” through legalizing the unauthorized settlements (outposts built without government permission, in violation of Israeli law), canceling the Civil Administration’s authority over the settlements and the settlers, making more land available for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, blocking Palestinian growth in Area C of the West Bank and bolstering existing settlements there, and paving the way to future de-jure annexation.
Smotrich’s coalition agreement puts him in the position to do all that and more.
According to Israeli press reports, authority over most civilian matters in the West Bank will be in the hands of Smotrich as finance minister or in the hands of a member of his party who will serve as a special minister in the Ministry of Defense.
Smotrich's party would control the most important tool for carrying out future settlement policy: the Judea and Samaria Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Committee. This committee approves the construction of every structure and every road in Area C of the West Bank. Area C, which is under full Israeli civilian and security control, comprises more than 60% of the West Bank and is home to all Israeli settlements. It is true that settlers and their representatives in positions of power have always enjoyed considerable influence over this committee, which has been responsible for numerous discriminatory decisions that helped the settlement enterprise prosper. But now, under Smotich’s control, that dynamic is bound to escalate.
According to the coalition agreement, Smotrich or a member of his party will also have influence over the appointment of the Coordinator of the Government’s Actions in the Territories (COGAT), which implements and to a large extent sets the government’s policies in the West Bank. He will also have influence over appointing the Head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria. The head of COGAT is a general and the head of the Civil Administration is a brigadier general. Although they are formally appointed by the IDF’s chief of staff, senior politicians (historically, the prime minister and especially the minister of defense) are typically the ones who weighed in to determine who would hold these positions. Now, apparently, the dominant political authority will be Smotrich instead.
Smotrich's party will reportedly also have input into the State’s legal positions when the government’s policies and practices regarding West Bank settlements are challenged in the Supreme Court.
Smotrich’s ultimate goal is to do away with the Civil Administration’s handling of matters pertaining to Israeli citizens (settlers) who reside in the West Bank. His goal is to have the government agencies deal directly with the settlers and the settlements, as though they were residents of sovereign Israel. That would serve his agenda of de facto annexation of the settlements and the settlers.
Obviously, past Netanyahu governments have been responsible for policies and practices that escalated the ongoing process of de facto annexation. But this time around, this process will likely be on steroids.
By granting a zealous annexationist settler such broad authority for managing the government agencies that control life in the West Bank, Netanyahu will be further entrenching Israel’s occupation. The repercussions of letting the fox into the henhouse could be catastrophic for Israel’s future and for its Palestinian neighbors.