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Smotrich’s new role brings Israel closer to annexation

MKs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a Religious Zionism party rally in Sderot, Oct. 26, 2022. (AFP)
MKs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a Religious Zionism party rally in Sderot, Oct. 26, 2022. (AFP)
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19 Jan 2023 09:01:13 GMT9
Yossi Mekelberg
19 Jan 2023 09:01:13 GMT9

No one could ever argue that the Religious Zionism party’s leaders came ill-prepared to the coalition negotiations. They knew exactly what they wanted, frighteningly so, and with great conviction they demanded conditions that would facilitate their desire to put the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians by annexing the West Bank, and in the process establishing the supremacy of Jewish settlers over the Palestinian population.

Representatives of the factions that comprise this party identified the ministries, the legislation and the policies that could best serve their distorted ideology, well aware that they had caught Benjamin Netanyahu at his weakest, facing a corruption trial and with no alternative to forming a coalition with them. Hence they have squeezed him to yield to all their demands — demands that they could previously only dream of — even though Netanyahu fully understands how destructive are his wholesale concessions to these ultranationalist messianic-religious elements in his government to relations with the Palestinians, with the region and with some of Israel’s closest allies.

It is not easy to cherry-pick the most damaging of his giveaways, but appointing Bezalel Smotrich not only to the Ministry of Finance, but also as a minister in the Defense Ministry, responsible for civil affairs in the West Bank and coordination with the Palestinians, is one of the most harmful.

In this role, Smotrich has been given full authority over both the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT. To fully comprehend how irresponsible and damaging this is, one must delve into both the roles and responsibilities of the Israeli Civil Administration and COGAT in the West Bank, and understand who Smotrich is and what ideology he represents.

To begin with, the terms Civil Administration and COGAT, which apply to entities that until this recent change were under the Ministry of Defense, are misleading as they are military bodies in charge of civilian matters regarding Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank. For all means and purposes, they are branches of the Israel Defense Forces that serve to facilitate more than 55 years of military occupation. While in the case of Jewish settlers they consolidate their presence there, in the case of the Palestinian population, they are tools of control backed up by Israel’s military.

These government bodies have almost total power over issues such as land administration, building permissions and construction, environmental issues and many other municipal matters affecting the daily lives of all those who live in the West Bank. Moreover, COGAT is in charge of work permits and other licenses, which enables Israel to control the freedom of movement, or rather the lack of it, and allow or prohibit people to work for their livelihoods inside Israel.

A focal point for the new government will no doubt be the power of these bodies over house demolition, be it the homes of Palestinians or of the illegal Jewish outposts, and it is rather obvious which houses Smotrich would be keener to demolish and which ones to build.

However, it is not only a matter of changing the administrative arrangements, but about to whom such responsibilities are given. To his credit, Smotrich is not one to hide his views. Hence, he has shown why his politics make him the least-qualified person for the job, unless the intention from the outset has been to ignite widespread violence, to release all brakes on settlement expansion, and to impose further limits on the Palestinian population’s human, civil and political rights, or all of the above.

To be sure, Smotrich is one of the most vocal of those who want to annex the West Bank in its entirety without granting citizenship rights to the Palestinians who live there — a move that can only be described as formally enacting an apartheid regime.

Back in 2005, he was under surveillance by Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, and was even arrested on suspicion of organizing civil disobedience over Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, although he was not charged. He is mostly known for his racist attitude toward Arabs, exemplified by his calls to separate Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards, remarking in one of his most bigoted Twitter outbursts that, “It’s only natural my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years.” More recently, he has said that the new government will need to “take action” against certain human rights organizations, labeling these groups as an “existential threat to the state of Israel.”

The consequences of the power that the Civil Administration and COGAT is able to exert over those who live in the occupied West Bank, when we consider the character of the person in charge of them and the danger of worsening conditions and escalation of the conflict, are becoming self-evident. On a number of previous occasions, I have been told by people who have met Smotrich and tried to understand his personality and his politics that, out of the political limelight, he is much more pragmatic and reasonable. My thoughts were that it does not really matter whether his extremely hawkish and racist ideology is genuine or opportunistic, and what really matters is how he speaks and acts in public and how he impacts the situation on the ground.

He is mostly known for his racist attitude toward Arabs, exemplified by his calls to separate Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards.

Yossi Mekelberg

For him to decide, for instance, in Area C, which is under complete Israeli control, to demolish houses in Palestinian communities whose inhabitants are already under threat of eviction, to legalize settler outposts and thereby increase friction with local Palestinians, and to likely pressurize the security forces to turn a blind eye to settler violence and their other illegal activities, would make his appointment preposterous.

The most concerning aspect of Smotrich’s appointment, as is also the case with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s appointment as minister of national security, is that, in their overall calculus, widespread confrontation and bloodshed with the Palestinians is not necessarily the worst-case scenario. Their best-case scenario is for the Palestinians to capitulate and accept that, under the new Israeli government, fast-paced annexation and deprivation of their rights is the new reality.

However, if their policies lead to armed confrontation, it is then for Israel to use disproportionate military power, which they hope would result in the decisive military outcome that will bring the Palestinians to their knees. That possibility is what makes Smotrich and Ben-Gvir sinister and dangerous: First and foremost to the Palestinians, but also to Israel itself and to regional stability.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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