Netanyahu, far-right ally said to agree government will advance West Bank annexation

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to advance annexation of West Bank land as part of a coalition deal with the far-right Religious Zionism party, Israeli television reported Thursday.

However, the commitment is vaguely worded, enabling Netanyahu to make no move on the issue if he chooses.

The text of the agreement released by Channel 12 news states that the Jewish people “have a natural right over the Land of Israel.”

“In light of our belief in the aforementioned right, the prime minister will lead the formulation and advancement of policies within the framework of applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,” the relevant clause in the coalition deal states, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.

The agreement stipulates, however, that Netanyahu will do so while “choosing the timing and weighing all of the State of Israel’s national and international interests.”

It was unclear from the text whether the agreement was over the entire West Bank or only parts of it. While serving as premier in 2020, Netanyahu pushed to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, but later shelved the plan under pressure from the administration of then-US president Donald Trump, and after agreeing to normalize diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates.

The network also published another clause from the coalition deal saying settlers living in “high-risk areas” will begin receiving tax breaks next year.

This picture taken on May 10, 2022, shows construction work in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. (Ahmed Gharabli/AFP)

There was no confirmation of the report from either Likud or Religious Zionism. A statement released Wednesday by Religious Zionism that listed the key principles of the coalition deal did not mention annexation but said the sides agreed to advance the legalization of wildcat outposts and to develop infrastructure in the West Bank.

Any move to annex all or part of the West Bank — which is claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state — is likely to be met with intense opposition from the international community.

Last month, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned that the Biden administration would push back against any annexation attempt but said he did not expect Israel to go through with it.

Nides also said at the time that “most of the Arab countries” are similarly opposed to annexation.

Along with initially serving as finance minister in the next government, Smotrich is expected to serve as a minister in the Defense Ministry and be given control over two bodies that have extensive authority over civilian life in the West Bank, including on Israeli settlements and Palestinian construction .

Smotrich has long advocated for annexing large parts of the West Bank, massively expanding settlement construction, legalizing illegal Israeli outposts and demolishing wildcat Palestinian construction in Area C — where they are virtually never given permits to build. He demanded control over construction during coalition negotiations so he can advance such policies.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the powers enjoyed by the Religious Zionism member appointed to the post could be curbed by the next defense minister — widely expected to be Likud MK Yoav Gallant — who the Knesset legal adviser said Wednesday can overrule the second minister.

Netanyahu’s willingness to give Smotrich control over bodies central to West Bank policy has been a cause for concern in capitals around the world, given the Religious Zionism chairman’s opposition to Palestinian statehood or equal rights in the West Bank.

Netanyahu sought to alleviate that concern in an interview last week. “I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. In fact, all the decisions will be made by me and the defense minister, and that’s actually in the coalition agreement,” he told Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya.

Following the interview, however, Likud issued a Hebrew “clarification,” saying that Netanyahu was referring to “the security powers that will be in his and the defense minister’s hands,” and not to the agreement with Religious Zionism on civil matters.

The Likud statement added that decisions regarding such matters “will be made in coordination with the prime minister, as is written in the coalition agreement.”

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