Netanyahu clarifies he’s the boss on West Bank issues - analysis

Netanyahu backed up Defense Minister Gallant's decision to raze a new illegal outpost in the West Bank on Friday.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the West Bank on January 17, 2023 (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the West Bank on January 17, 2023
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday set his first redline when it comes to West Bank settlement activity: No new illegal settler outposts.

It underscores the larger point that on matters relating to settlement activity and Palestinian building in Area C of the West Bank, he is in charge.

It’s a stance that has placed Netanyahu in immediate crisis with his coalition partner the Religious Zionist Party, headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who had believed that he would control civilian life in Area C.

A coalition crisis on this issue was inevitable because Netanyahu needs to retain that control for diplomatic and security reasons.

Authority over that region for the RZP, however, is an ideological and existential matter and is therefore not one they will easily give in on. Strengthening Israel’s hold on Judea and Samaria is one of the central reasons the party’s parliamentarians entered politics.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Immigration and Aliyah Minister Yoav Gallant (credit: HANAN BITAN)Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Immigration and Aliyah Minister Yoav Gallant (credit: HANAN BITAN)

It’s a political standoff with no real resolution given that the RZP’s policy agenda creates a diplomatic crisis for Netanyahu with his allies.

Has Netanyahu failed the Right in the battle for Area C of the West Bank?

Make no mistake, Netanyahu himself will create many crises with his Western allies over the West Bank because his policies are at odds with their demands, which is a freeze of settlement activity and a two-state resolution to the conflict based on the pre-1967 lines.

The Biden administration has routinely spoken out against Israel’s West Bank policies, as have Israel’s European allies.

Netanyahu has pushed back. He stands by a united Jerusalem, Jewish building in Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements and has dismissed the pre-1967 lines as untenable.

The new government’s stance goes even further and speaks to policies in support of the eventual annexation of portions of the West Bank in Area C, which is outside the country’s sovereign borders and where all the settlements are located.

But Netanyahu enters this government, the most right-wing one in Israel’s history, with a track record of moderation on the settlements by domestic right-wing standards, in which he has moved the bar forward in a series of slow moderate steps that have frustrated his political partners.

One of the key places where they feel he has failed is in the battle for Area C, a region that both the Palestinians and the Israeli Right envision will be part of the borders of their final state.

Here, everything is symbolic of the larger struggle for statehood control. Every rock and hilltop is transformed into a do-or-die stand within the larger territorial battle. The international community worries that Israeli settlement expansion has been so extensive that it has endangered a two-state resolution. They see the lack of building permits for Palestinians as part of an Israeli plan to prevent a Palestinian footprint in Area C.

The Right believes precisely the opposite. It believes Netanyahu has not authorized enough settlement building and has failed to crack down sufficiently on illegal Palestinian buildings, which it maintains is part of a Palestinian Authority plan to seize de facto control of Area C.

After watching Netanyahu at the helm for 15 years, the RZP wants to control the battle for Area C. It is for this reason that Smotrich initially set his sights on the Defense Ministry. When he was given the Finance Ministry, a compromise was brokered by which he would be a minister within the Defense Ministry, with control over the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories and its Civil Administration division.

Full authority in that position should have given him the power to authorize settlement building, tolerate illegal settler building and raze unauthorized Palestinian construction.

It was a major victory for the RZP and, it turns out, potentially a hollow one.

On Friday, a group of settlers tested that control when they attempted to build an outpost in the Samaria region of the West Bank, called Or Haim. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant – a strong supporter of the settlement movement – immediately overrode Smotrich and ordered its evacuation.

Netanyahu, under whose watch in the last decade more than 70 outposts were built, according to Peace Now data, threw his support behind Gallant.

Netanyahu might be aligned with the Right ideologically, but by the weekend, it was clear that when it comes to when and where to build, he retains that authority.

He and he alone will decide what the pace will be and the flow of how settlement activity is carried out.

Now that the limits of the coalition agreement area are clear, the RZP has to decide if it will stand on this principled point and leave the coalition or accept a compromised position in which Smotrich can help set the course in the battle for Area C but can’t control it.