Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich will have control over the West Bank settlements in the new government, but will not necessarily have full power to make decisions about their fate.
That power remains in the hands of presumptive incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In reality, the final authority for what happens in Area C of the West Bank, a region under full IDF military and civilian control where all the settlements are located, has always been in the hands of Israeli prime ministers.
What does the defense minister really do?
What the defense minister does is to execute the policies set by the Prime Minister’s Office.
A political fiction has often been bandied about in which the Right levels their frustrations at the defense minister rather than the prime minister, even though the latter is in charge.
This has given the public the false idea that the defense minister has the final say over what happens in the settlements. But the subtle distinction that has always existed was clearly laid out in the coalition agreement published Sunday between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Smotrich’s Religious Zionist one.
It placed responsibility for civilian life in Area C in the hands of a minister from the RZP, presumably Smotrich, and explained that the minister would operate within the Defense Ministry.
Placement of the minister there signifies that the region remains outside the sovereign boundaries of the State of Israel and is within a reign under IDF control.
The agreement, however, further states that the minister’s activity with respect to the settlements “will be coordinated with and subject to the prime minister’s approval.”
As part of this new division of power, Smotrich will also have control over the IDF’s Civil Administration, which oversees civilian life in Area C.
The move gives the impression that Smotrich can move forward with authorization of construction in the settlements at will. The agreement, however, does not provide any guidelines for such construction or promise that a certain amount of building will be done.
It does not even guarantee how many times the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria can meet or will meet. Nor does it pledge authorization of some 70 West Bank settlements.
Smotrich can effectively push forward the mechanism of authorization. Committees might even vote for it, but Netanyahu will have full power to state when and if such projects can actually be built.
Smotrich’s biggest impact on building is likely to be in the small details, specifically illegal settler construction, such as expansion of the outposts or the creation of new ones.
The decision of whether to turn a blind eye to such activity will be his.
The coalition agreement allows the government to get off the ground but sets up a potential showdown for later.
For each significant project, Smotrich will have to threaten to leave the coalition and Netanyahu will have to cede to that threat – or more likely broker a compromise in which the process moves forward by inches.
What is more likely is that the shift of power will create immediate chaos within a long-standing military institution, but will not ultimately shift the dynamic that has existed in past Netanyahu governments.
Short of moves within the Knesset to advance an agenda in the settlements, including authorization of the outposts, this new government, like his last one, is more likely to see West Bank construction move forward in slow steps rather than large-scale upheavals.