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Senior legal military officials warn Smotrich’s West Bank powers will be perceived internationally as annexation

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference with bereaved families in the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2023. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

High-ranking legal officials within the Israeli defense establishment reportedly warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that transferring civilian powers in Judea and Samaria to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich could be interpreted as de facto annexation and undermine Israel’s standing in the world. 

Israel’s chief military prosecutor Brig.-Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi and the Defense Ministry’s legal advisor, Itay Ofir, reportedly delivered this warning to Netanyahu during a Tuesday meeting attended by Smotrich, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

After being attacked by Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, much of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. 

Jordan, which occupied these territories after invading the nascent modern State of Israel in 1948, formally annexed the West Bank in 1950, an annexation considered illegal and rejected by all nations except for Great Britain and Pakistan. In 1988, Jordan formally renounced any claims it had made to the disputed territories. 

Despite the construction of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria after 1967 and the recapture of Jewish heritage sites, including the graves of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Rachel and Joseph, no modern Israeli government formally annexed any part of the disputed territories. For that reason, the Israeli military – not civilian authorities – has been given responsibility for the ancient heartland of biblical Israel. 

Smotrich, a resident of a Jewish community in Samaria named Kedumim, demanded civilian powers in the disputed territories as a prerequisite for joining Netanyahu’s coalition government, while the premier conducted negotiations to secure a majority under deadline. 

Netanyahu consequently granted Smotrich ministerial powers there, including the authority to appoint the generals who lead the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). In addition, Smotrich was given authority over many Jewish settlement issues, albeit, subject to the prime minister’s approval. 

As Smotrich advocates for an expansion of Jewish communities in the disputed territories, and since sovereign states only exercise civilian powers within their borders, these powers could be interpreted as an implicit annexation. 

Critics in Israel are particularly concerned that it could harm Israel’s relations with international bodies such as the International Court of Justice. 

The potential transfer of civilian powers to Smotrich also challenges the existing chain of military command in the territories, which prompted concern from military leaders. 

“I am the defense minister. There can’t be two military commanders,” said Gallant. 

Gallant has been the key authority for matters concerning Judea and Samaria, and the new division of powers could lead to a situation where it becomes unclear who is in charge of what.

He told Levin and Smotrich that they “spent two months playing in front of an empty goal – nobody asked me.”

At the center of the conflict between Smotrich and Gallant is Area C, which constitutes about 60% of the disputed territories. Area C is home to most of the Jewish residents who live in the territories, and Israel maintains military and administrative control over the whole population there, whether Israeli or Arab. 

While Gallant stressed that the military is ultimately in charge of Area C, Smotrich views the local Civil Administration as a means to transfer control of the area from the military to his civilian authority. 

The dispute between Gallant and Smotrich also emerged in a recent disagreement over the dismantling of an illegal settlement outpost in the region, Or Haim, ordered by Gallant. Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party protested the expulsion of the outpost, boycotting the following Cabinet meeting. 

A spokesperson for Smotrich articulated the clash between Smotrich and Gallant over the move. 

“Defense Minister Gallant ordered the evacuation to go ahead despite the order and without consulting with Minister Smotrich and completely against the coalition agreements that form the basis for the existence of the government,” noted the statement. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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