Moving COGAT from Defense Ministry could spark more W. Bank violence - official

Col.(res.) Michael Milshtein: "If there is no real discourse between Israel and the Palestinians, there could be a nightmarish situation."

 Palestinian youth clash with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 28, 2022.  (photo credit: WISAM HASHLAMOUN/FLASH90)
Palestinian youth clash with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 28, 2022.
(photo credit: WISAM HASHLAMOUN/FLASH90)

The transfer of responsibility of COGAT from the Defense Ministry to a civilian politician from Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party could lead to an even further escalation of violence in the West Bank, a former COGAT official told The Jerusalem Post.

“I am really concerned. This is not only a bureaucratic step but a dramatic step,” said Col. (res.). Michael Milshtein, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit and a former head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

A copy of the deal released on Monday showed that Smotrich’s party will be granted extensive influence over civilian life in the West Bank – both Jewish and Palestinian. Smotrich will be granted extensive influence over civilian activities in the West Bank, including providing final approvals for buildings and demolitions.

What can Bezalel Smotrich do to COGAT, the West Bank?

A minister within the Defense Ministry from his party will receive the power to appoint the head of COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and of the Israeli Civil Administration in coordination and with the agreement of the prime minister.

According to Milshtein, not only will there be organizational chaos from moving COGAT to the Finance Ministry but there risks being a chaotic eruption with the Palestinians.

 Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

“We all know that Smotrich isn’t interested in easing the lives of the Palestinians, he doesn’t come to this position with tight and deep relations with Palestinians. And that's what makes me concerned. The issue of preserving the channels of discourse with the Palestinian Authority itself and the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, if this responsibility is going to be undermined, there will be a dramatic effect on the West Bank,” he said.

“We all know that Smotrich isn’t interested in easing the lives of the Palestinians, he doesn’t come to this position with tight and deep relations with Palestinians. And that's what makes me concerned. The issue of preserving the channels of discourse with the Palestinian Authority itself and the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, if this responsibility is going to be undermined, there will be a dramatic effect on the West Bank.”

Michael Milshtein

“The PA is already in a very fragile situation, and if there is no real discourse between Israel and the Palestinians, there could be a nightmarish situation.”

COGAT, which is responsible for implementing the government’s policies in the West Bank was established two weeks after the Six Day War in 1967. 

It's a hybrid organization that is under the responsibility of the defense minister yet contains military officials with the head of COGAT a major-general and the head of the Civil Administration which deals with all civil matters of Jewish settlers and Palestinians in Area C, is a brigadier-general.

“COGAT proves that since 1967 until today, Israel doesn’t want to make any dramatic decision. We want the territory to be under control and Palestinians to get their civil services, yet we dont want to directly control them or promote any military regime,” said Milshtein, who is the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University.

Milshtein warned that the ongoing violence that has hit the West Bank “could be worse and more broad” should the coordination between the IDF and PA be undermined and the channels of discourse are cut.

He warned that should Smotrich limit the transfer of tax payments or carry out any other financial move, “it can cause a dramatic economic crisis in the West Bank. The broad majority of the Palestinian population has so far remained removed from the violence, but if they find themselves with no work and no money, it could cause the beginning of the Third Intifada.”

“Smotrich’s vision is to change reality. He really means what he says and he intends to promote feasible steps from day one that he sits on the chair. He won't be more constrained or moderate as a minister,” Milshtein said.

But, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi has vowed to stop Smotrich and any other politician from appointing senior military officers or moving the responsibility for the West Bank Border Police away from the military.

Speaking behind closed doors, Kohavi was quoted by Channel 13 as saying that “I won’t allow any interference in the appointment of IDF generals. There is no possibility of this happening.”

Though Kohavi will finish his term in January, his replacement Maj.-Gen. Hertz Halevi is also said to be against the move.

And while Halevi may be against the moves, Milstein believes that the basic rules of the system will be preserved. Though there may be tensions between the military and security level with the political echelon, the relations between Halevi and Yoav Gallant (who is reportedly set to be defense minister) will be stable.

Gallant’s “basic DNA is IDF DNA, and he has respect for IDF commanders,” Milshtein said, 

“The main problems will be with the other ministers who will have authority over security but aren't a natural part of the security ministry. There will be some problems but I hope that like in the past we will solve all problems without a coup d’etat or crises that could impact Israel’s national security,” he said.

According to Haaretz, former senior officials who served in the Civil Administration voiced their concerns about the transfer of responsibility from COGAT to the cabinet minister from the RZP in the Defense Ministry. 

The report quoted the officials as saying that the move would directly affect national security.

Despite the deal signed between Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right parties led by Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, the military has not been updated on the changes.