From the beginning, the decision by the incoming government to split responsibility over the Defense Ministry between two ministers did not make sense.Under the coalition agreement signed last month, Yoav Gallant of the Likud became defense minister and Bezalel Smotrich received a ministerial-level position in the Defense Ministry alongside his role as Israel’s finance minister.Under the deal, Smotrich was to receive the power to appoint the head of COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and of the Civil Administration in coordination and with the agreement of the prime minister. COGAT is the umbrella IDF unit responsible for implementing the government’s policies in the West Bank. The Civil Administration is a branch within it that deals with all civil matters of both Jewish settlers and Palestinians in Area C. The head of COGAT is a major-general, while the head of the Civil Authority is a brigadier-general. The appointments until now have been made by the IDF chief of staff, with the approval of the defense minister.The agreement also stipulated that the government’s responses via the State’s Attorney’s Office to appeals in the High Court of Justice on matters connected to settlements.
No room for a second minister
Every time that an IDF commander wants to conduct an operation in a Palestinian area – similar to the operation carried out Thursday in Jenin – the representative of the Civil Administration who is stationed inside the relevant IDF regional brigade, contacts his or her counterpart in the PA and ensures that Palestinian security forces will not get in the way.Is this supposed to also be under Smotrich’s purview? That would be hard to see since under the Basic Law: Military – passed in 1976 – the IDF has one clear commander (the chief of staff) and is subordinate to the government and its representative, the defense minister.There is no room in this equation for a second minister, especially one who seeks to politicize the military and use it and its various arms to advance ideological objectives. Smotrich has not made a secret of his desire to see Israeli settlements in the West Bank come under the direct jurisdiction of Israeli government ministries, meaning that de facto they would become part of Israel. The current status is that since the territory of Judea and Samaria is in dispute and under Israeli military control, the Israeli communities there are also ruled by military law through the Civil Administration.On Thursday, a group of senior opposition MKs wrote to Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC) Chairman MK Yuli Edelstein, warning that the plan to split responsibilities over the West Bank between Gallant and Smotrich will “severely damage the defense system’s functioning” and end up costing lives of Israeli civilians.“From our experience and our responsibility to oversee the government’s actions, this decision involves severe damage to the defense system’s functioning, which could cost the lives of civilians of the state of Israel. Furthermore, we view this decision as a violation of the ‘Basic Law: The Military,’ and as a blow to the defense system’s ability to fulfill its responsibility,” MKs Gadi Eisenkot (National Unity), Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), Gideon Sa’ar (National Unity), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Orna Barbivay (Yesh Atid) Sharon Nir (Yisrael Beytenu) and Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid) wrote.
We urge Netanyahu to reconsider the function of the role of the second minister in the Defense Ministry. It is vital that the IDF retains its independence and is not dragged into political battles. In the end, the military needs to be able to perform its primary missions – protecting Israel and preparing for war.