US views Smotrich control over West Bank as move toward annexation

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  February 10, 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the far-right minister sweeping control of the occupied West Bank.

The Biden administration has equated any transfer of civilian authorities in the occupied West Bank to Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as a step toward annexation, according to Axios [see below].

US officials warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against following through on a government coalition agreement that would give Smotrich control over administration in the region, Axios reported on Friday.

Smotrich is head of the Religious Zionism political alliance which helped bring Netanyahu back to power in elections last year.

His special post regarding the occupied West Bank would give him authority over building permits in settlements, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and land issues. He is also set to oversee two military units in charge of running civilian and security affairs in the region.

US concerns

The US has said it will oppose any steps that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, illegal settlement expansion, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, and disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the occupied West Bank and Israel last month, leaving behind Barbara Leaf, the assistant US secretary of state for Near East Affairs to liaise with Israeli and Palestinian officials to diffuse rising tensions.

According to Axios, Leaf expressed the Biden administration’s concerns about Smotrich’s potential post to Israeli officials, saying that it could complicate the situation in the occupied West Bank amid rising tensions.

Israeli military and defence officials told Leaf they highly objected to the transfer, Axios said, citing unnamed US and Israeli officials. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant also opposes the move.

Tensions in the region are running high. Israeli forces have killed 42 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this year so far.

In 2022, at least 220 people died in Israeli attacks across the occupied territories, including 48 children. At least 167 were from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Meanwhile, 30 Israelis have been killed, including one child, the highest death toll since 2008.

Greater violence

The renewed Israeli violence comes as the military increases operations in the West Bank and Palestinian armed resistance is resurgent.

CIA director William Burns warned this month that violence in the region was beginning to resemble the Second Intifada.

“The conversations I’ve had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians,” Burns said during an interview at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Washington on Thursday. 

The Second Intifada was a Palestinian armed uprising against the Israeli occupation, sparked by the provocative incursion into al-Aqsa Mosque by then-leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, in 2000. 

In the aftermath, Israel launched a military offensive in the West Bank to clamp down on Palestinian resistance and attacks that involved a series of deadly suicide bombings in Israeli cities.


U.S. tells Israel if Smotrich gets West Bank authority it’s step toward annexation

Barak Ravid

Axios  /  February 9, 2023

The Biden administration warned the Israeli government that it would consider any transfer of civilian authorities in the occupied West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as a step toward annexation, two Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

Driving the news: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must decide in the coming weeks if and how to implement his government’s coalition agreement that states Smotrich, a radical right-wing settler who supports annexation, should be given authority over two military units in charge of the civilian administration in the West Bank.

  • The Biden administration has said it opposes any unilateral moves by Israel that could hamper efforts to negotiate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including settlement expansion and annexation.

Catch up quick: Named finance minister and a minister in the Ministry of Defense, Smotrich is one of the most senior members of the Israeli government.

  • If he’s given authority over the two military units in charge of civilian policy in the West Bank, as the coalition agreement stipulates, Smotrich will have unprecedented influence on the policy related to Israeli settlements.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant is vehemently opposed to giving away any of his authority to Smotrich. Several meetings between the two ministers did not lead to any compromise.
  • Netanyahu has asked both ministers to present him with their proposals in order for him to decide which authorities, if any, will be transferred to Smotrich.

Behind the scenes: Barbara Leaf, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near East Affairs, met with national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and other senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem last week to discuss the escalation in the West Bank.

  • Leaf told them the Biden administration is concerned about the possible transfer of some of the authorities in the West Bank from Galant to Smotrich, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
  • Leaf said that such a move would further complicate the situation in the West Bank at a time when de-escalation is needed and will be considered by the Biden administration as a step towards annexation by the Israeli government, the officials said.
  • IDF and Israeli defense ministry officials told Leaf and other Biden administration officials they highly object to any transfer of authority over the West Bank to Smotrich and are concerned by its implications, according to the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

The big picture: Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it has been administered by the Israeli Defense Ministry and the IDF under military occupation laws in order to adhere to the Geneva convention.

  • Israel has never formally annexed parts of the West Bank. Israeli settlements, which much of the international community considers illegal under international law, have grown significantly in recent years, but they don’t have the same status as towns inside Israel and receive many of their services from the Defense Ministry and the Israeli military.
  • Smotrich and his supporters in the settler lobby have tried for many years to “normalize” the status of the settlements and make them similar to that of towns and cities inside Israel. Transferring authorities from the IDF to civilian ministries would be a major step in that direction.

Between the lines: Smotrich holds significant political leverage over Netanyahu and Galant both because of his control of the budget and his ability to topple the government if his demands are not met.

What they’re saying: A State Department spokesperson said the Biden administration believes it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from any unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, such as steps towards the annexation of territory.

  • “This certainly includes the further extension of Israeli civilian law to the West Bank,” the State Department spokesperson said.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

Barak Ravid – author of Axios from Tel Aviv