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Israeli demolition of West Bank outpost shakes Netanyahu’s cabinet

Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich are on a collision course over an illegal West Bank outpost.
GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Monday with Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in an attempt to resolve a clash between them over the razing of an illegal West Bank outpost. The order to dismantle the outpost was issued by Galant last week despite objections by Smotrich, who also serves as a junior minister in the Defense Ministry.

The clash between the two ministers was bound to happen. Still, coalition partners surely did not imagine such a confrontation should present itself so quickly, less than a month after the swearing-in of the new government.

On Jan. 20, Galant (from the Likud party) ordered security forces to tear down an illegal outpost named “Or HaChaim,” which was built overnight by a group of young settlers. Meanwhile, Smotrich (of the Religious Zionist party) instructed the Civil Administration, which had been placed under his purview, not to destroy the new outpost before there could be a proper debate about it, to be chaired by him. Only Galant’s order was carried out, and soldiers and police dismantled the illegal outpost while the settlers protested.

In response, Smotrich and the other ministers from his party boycotted last Sunday’s cabinet meeting while Netanyahu tiptoed between the raindrops.

The incident proved that it is impossible for the IDF and security forces in the West Bank to operate under two such different commanders. Smotrich holding responsibility for the Civil Administration in the West Bank while National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir controls the border police troops is simply an impossible situation.

Fortunately, this time, the skirmish ended without violence. As a former senior defense official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Imagine if Ben-Gvir would have instructed the border police to prevent the army, subject to the minister of defense, to use force to prevent the evacuation of the settlement. It may sound fanciful now, but theoretically, a clash between the IDF and the border police or the police is imaginable, if and when the higher ranks issue conflicting orders over everything to do with the territories. In the chaotic reality that has emerged here, nothing is really just a figment of the imagination.”

“I am watching the irresponsible behavior of Minister Smotrich with consternation,” former chief of staff and current Knesset member Gadi Eizenkot told Al-Monitor. “He has given illegal orders, which conflict with years and decades of policy, to evacuate fresh land grabs by Palestinians and Israelis alike, and to do so immediately. Smotrich is sowing chaos. His interference in security affairs will be very damaging to the IDF, which is the authority in the region, and make it difficult to fulfill its mission of providing security and enforcing law and order. Netanyahu must clarify immediately that he does not back such behavior.”

It seems as though even Netanyahu can do nothing to resolve this unprecedented situation, even after he met last week with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and attempted to mitigate his concerns about the West Bank and other issues including the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul.

Now that he has been reelected prime minister, it is no secret that Netanyahu wants to be swiftly invited to Washington, as has long been the custom between the two countries. As of now, there are no such plans.

The conversation between Netanyahu and Sullivan followed all the protocols, but a cloud hung over it. According to two sources familiar with the content of these talks, it could be understood from what Sullivan said that American support for Israel cannot be taken for granted. Similarly, the American veto over anti-Israel decisions in the UN Security Council is no longer a certainty.

The talks took place in English, of course, in which Netanyahu sounded very different from how he speaks to his coalition partners and base. When speaking with Sullivan, Netanyahu said that his judicial reform would be passed only with widespread support, and that the draft presented now to the Knesset’s Constitution Committee will not be similar to what is passed in its second and third reading by the Knesset. Then, once Sullivan boarded his flight back to Washington, Netanyahu returned to the warm embrace of his coalition partners and ordered Justice Minister Yariv Levin to continue as usual with his legislative blitz.

“Netanyahu has never experienced such meticulous preparations for a future meeting with a US president,” a former senior Israeli statesman told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The Americans are reviewing all the details, including the way that Israel deals with the Palestinians, including human rights, and including the judicial revolution — all these issues.”

The source continued, “As far as we know, Netanyahu made a commitment to fastidiously maintaining the status quo in the West Bank and the Temple Mount. Any new land grabs by settlers and any new outposts established overnight will be evacuated quickly. As such, there was no doubt that the Or HaChaim outpost would be evacuated. Netanyahu really has no choice in this. It will be interesting to see how Smotrich reacts.”

Smotrich has already responded by boycotting the weekly cabinet meeting and delivering an ultimatum over the government’s fulfillment of its coalition agreements. The government doesn’t seem to be at risk at this point, but it is only the beginning.

On Tuesday, two activists affiliated with the far right were detained for questioning on the Temple Mount after raising an Israeli flag and singing the national anthem, more violations of the status quo. Given the current state of affairs, Netanyahu will be forced to give up his dream of bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords and seeing relations fully normalize between Israel and the kingdom. Instead, he will have to invest most of his energy into maintaining ties with the United States.

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