Far-right Israeli minister lays groundwork for doubling West Bank Jewish settler population

Yaniv Kubuvich & Ben Samuels

Haaretz  /  May 18, 2023

Israel’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has asked to prepare for 500,000 more Jewish settlers to move to the West Bank by updating the infrastructure in settlements and illegal outposts.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has instructed Israeli government ministries to prepare for the addition of 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, including an improvement of infrastructure in the settlements and illegal outposts. During previous closed meetings, Smotrich stressed the policy as a “core mission” for the government.

After Smotrich’s authorities in the Civil Administration of the West Bank were outlined, he began a round of meetings with representatives of the relevant government ministries, including finance and defense. Smotrich was appointed as a minister in the Defense Ministry, following an agreement he reached with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant

Smotrich presented his plans to strengthen the settlements at these meetings, demanding their immediate implementation while adding that the plan is to be implemented within two years.

According to sources, Smotrich demanded improved infrastructure for all Jewish communities in the West Bank, including unauthorized outposts, regardless of their legal status, in order to keep up with the population growth in the region.

Another of Smotrich’s demands was to conduct an immediate wide-scale planning to absorb some 500,000 more settlers – a number equal to its population today, according to figures he presented. The new residents will live in existing communities, as well as in outposts the government will legalize in the next few months. Smotrich asked for the plan to address private and public transportation, education and employment, among other issues.

Officials in the Finance Ministry were surprised by Smotrich’s plan, that is expected to cost billions of shekels. Israel’s proposed 2023-2024 budget does include funding for constructing infrastructure in the settlements, but in much smaller amounts than Smotrich’s proposed plan.

According to one of the sources, when some of the participants in the meetings wondered where funding for the new project would come from, Smotrich confidently replied that such sources could be found. They added that he further instructed the officials to address him and only him with any related question to the funding.

The plan has also raised questions in the defense ministry, where officials have not received sufficient information to comment on it. Defense officials are expected to oppose much of Smotrich’s plan, particularly concerning unauthorized outposts located in highly-risked areas of conflict with Palestinians.

Legal experts who were told of Smotrich’s plan noted many legal difficulties, and stressed that it is likely to be challenged by the High Court.

In the meantime, Smotrich is demanding that the Defense Ministry ease the passage of settlers through checkpoints and into Israel, and demanded to present him with a plan that would increase the number of crossings from the West Bank.

Smotrich noted that many settlers are required to wait in long traffic jams in the morning on their way to work. In closed meetings, government officials replied that traffic jams do exist, but they are not unusual compared to traffic jams in the rest of Israel.

Smotrich’s office has not commented on the report.

Vedant Patel, the deputy spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, said that, “Like most administrations previously, we view the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to peace that undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution [sic], and we continue to oppose any unilateral steps that incite tensions, harm trust between the parties and undermine this viability of a two-state solution.”

He added, “We have been clear and have not parsed words that actions such as these undermine our ultimate goal for the region which is a two-state solution. We raise this issue directly with our Israeli partners and partners in the Palestinian Authority and will continue to do so.”