Israel Pulse

Israel’s new housing minister – minister of West Bank settlements?

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Article Summary
United Right member Bezalel Smotrich may receive the Israeli Cabinet's housing portfolio in order to promote construction in West Bank settlements.

Negotiations for the composition of the next government officially started April 28 and are expected to last for some time. In the days after the April 9 elections, senior United Right officials said the party was expecting two portfolios, including the Justice Ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fifth government has yet to be formed, but it appears quite certain that United Right party Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich will not serve as Israel’s next justice minister. Smotrich has been conducting an aggressive campaign for some time against the Supreme Court and has repeatedly promised to carry out sweeping reforms of Israel’s legal system. Although he has not gone as far as his colleague, Knesset member Moti Yogev of HaBayit HaYehudi (a party in the United Right alliance), who in 2015 urged the razing of the country’s top court, Smotrich’s gung-ho battle cries appear to have frightened even Netanyahu himself.

The Likud Party’s negotiating team has reportedly offered the United Right the education portfolio for its leader, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, and the Construction and Housing Ministry with expanded powers for Smotrich.

Before delving into the meaning of the expanded portfolio and the powers Netanyahu is promising Smotrich as compensation for “the anguish” of being refused the justice portfolio, a brief review of the future minister’s past, style and modus operandi is in order. These all indicate that the portfolio he is being offered will enable Smotrich to carry out a different type of revolution, one far more germane to his worldview.

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Smotrich, 39, grew up in the West Bank settlement of Beit El and lives with his family in the settlement of Kdumim in the Samaria region of the West Bank. Prior to Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Smotrich was arrested along with four other young men by the Shin Bet security agency on suspicion of organizing violent opposition to the withdrawal, but he was never indicted. A decade later, ahead of the 2015 elections, reports emerged saying he was suspected of possessing 700 liters of fuel with which to blow up infrastructure and equipment the army had prepared for the disengagement operation. Smotrich vehemently denied the reports, calling them an attempt to besmirch him politically.

In 2006, Smotrich founded a nongovernmental organization called Regavim, which defines its mission as the preservation of the Jewish nation’s lands. The NGO promotes what it calls a Jewish, Zionist agenda on issues of land and the environment in order to “preserve the lands of the Jewish people and the natural treasures and landscapes of the Land of Israel and prevent the control of these resources by foreign elements” (as per the NGO’s Hebrew web site). A significant part of its budget is provided by regional councils in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), which strongly back its activities.

Smotrich obtained undergraduate and graduate law degrees, with distinction, and was first elected to the Knesset in 2015. As one raised on the religious-Zionist-settlement ethos, he became its most authentic representative. Ahead of the 2019 elections, he was elected chair of the Ichud Leumi-Tkuma faction (National Unity faction) and placed second on the Knesset slate of the newly formed United Right alliance.

As a Knesset member, Smotrich authored the controversial 2017 bill that legalized settlements built on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank, known as the “Regularization Law.” After the bill passed, Smotrich declared with great pride: “The settlements, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel have reason to rejoice. Practically speaking, the status of thousands of settlement homes will now be legalized and the moral aspect of the law is no less important. The destruction of homes in the [evacuated] settlement of Amona and the planned demolitions in Ofra were a heavy moral blow to the settlements and their circles. Tremendous energies were invested in the legal challenge to the planned razing and therefore, for the settlements, this is now a great relief.”

In December 2018, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved another bill proposed by Smotrich, dubbed the “Regularization Law 2,” which would legalize 66 illegal outposts built in the West Bank over the past 20 years.

If he accepts the Likud’s offer of the Construction and Housing Ministry, with expanded powers, Smotrich will no longer need NGOs to “protect the nation’s lands.” What powers is the Likud offering him? Smotrich will apparently be put in charge of the Planning Administration and Israel Lands Authority. This will enable him to allocate state lands to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Congress. In 2015, the Knesset passed a bill Smotrich authored that anchored the status of the division as an operational arm “for the development and support of settlement throughout the Land of Israel.” After passage of the law, opposition Knesset members Tzipi Livni (Zionist Camp) and Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) claimed the law was designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community regarding official support for and expansion of settlements in the territories. “The law is designed to enable lying to the state and the court, and perhaps it is even designed to lie to the European Union,” Stern said at the time.

During the current coalition negotiations, the prospective minister presented his demands for joining the government, among them a commitment by the Likud to push through legislation overriding Supreme Court rulings knocking down laws that contradict Israel’s constitutional-status Basic Laws (the controversial “Override Clause,” much discussed during the last Knesset term). Curbing the power and authority of the top court would, in turn, allow “expropriation” of private Palestinian land for the establishment of new settlements and remove the threat of demolitions hanging over settler homes built on private lands.

An additional demand says it all regarding the future housing minister’s plans: Smotrich demands that the team regulating settlements be under control of a new authority with large responsibilities — a new authority that would be under his control. In other words, he will decide which illegal outposts are to be legalized. It stands to reason that Smotrich, in his role as minister, would not deprive a single one of the dozens of illegal outposts of legal status (in the eyes of Israeli law) as a settlement eligible for generous budgets from the Settlement Division into which he has breathed new life.

Also on his wish list: A commitment by the Likud to annex West Bank territories — not just the major settlement blocs (the Etzion Bloc, and the settlement towns of Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel). He is demanding a commitment to annex Areas A and B of the West Bank currently under total or partial control of the Palestinian Authority. Sound unrealistic? If someone had said 14 years ago that a young man arrested by the Shin Bet for planning a violent protest against the Gaza disengagement would be put in charge of establishing and legalizing settlements, he or she would probably have been considered delusional.

If Smotrich is named minister of construction and housing with expanded powers, we will likely hear him repeating over and over that Israel must annex the entire West Bank until this mantra sinks in and no longer sounds preposterous.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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