Netanyahu hands Smotrich full authority to expand existing settlements

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed a controversial resolution Sunday that gives practically all control over planning approval for construction in West Bank settlements to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, an ultranationalist advocate of settlements.

The decision approved at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, which takes immediate effect, also dramatically expedites and eases the process for expanding existing West Bank settlements and retroactively legalizing some illegal outposts.

The resolution was warmly welcomed by settlement leaders for the expected boost to settlement construction it is likely to create.

According to the resolution, which is an amendment to a 1996 government decision, the numerous stages of authorization hitherto needed from the defense minister for the approval of land usage designation masterplans will be reduced to just one required approval.

And, in line with a previous agreement, that approval will now come from Smotrich, the head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, in his secondary role as a minister within the Defense Ministry.

Settlement leaders praised Smotrich and Netanyahu for advancing and approving the change, and welcomed the streamlined approval process, which they said would make planning approval “routine” and make construction planning in the West Bank more similar to that in sovereign Israel.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich takes part in a march to the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar, near the West Bank city of Nablus, during the Passover holiday, on April 10, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Groups opposed to the settlement movement denounced the decision, saying it constituted further “de facto annexation” of the West Bank and would allow for unchecked expansion of the settlements.

According to the amendment, a key clause in government resolution 150 — which required the approval of the defense minister before a planning committee could hold hearings on a proposed land usage masterplan — has now been erased.

Previously, there were at least five stages in the planning process that required the authorization of the defense minister, although the minister could give approval for more than one stage at once.

In practice, this process meant that planning for settlement expansion or the legalization of illegal outposts required input from the political echelon at every stage, and the defense minister could take into account defense and diplomatic considerations at those stages.

According to legal activist Michael Sfard, an attorney who campaigns against the settlement enterprise, the protracted approvals process has often helped put the brakes on settlement planning in the West Bank, since there were numerous windows of opportunity for internal and international pressure to be applied against such steps.

Under the terms of the amended resolution, the minister need only need give his approval once, or a maximum of twice in certain circumstances, in order to advance a masterplan, meaning that the process can advance much more rapidly.

The only other requirements for settlement planning approval are the authorization of technical issues by the Higher Planning Committee of the Civil Administration and its subcommittees — which are under the authority of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration department, which in turn comes under Smotrich’s authority as an additional minister in the Defense Ministry.

The change does not give Smotrich the authority to approve new settlements, which still require cabinet approval.

Head of the Benjamin Regional Council in the West Bank Yisrael Gantz applauded the government for the decision, saying it would “reduce international scrutiny and criticism over construction in the settlements,” and thanked Smotrich for advancing the amendment.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (center) and MK Zvi Sukkot (to his left) dance during a prayer service marking Independence Day in the illegal West Bank outpost of Homesh in the northern West Bank, April 26, 2023. (Screenshot used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“This government resolution brings the residents of Judea and Samaria to the regular situation of the entire State of Israel,” said Gantz, using the biblical name for the West Bank region. “This step will turn construction in the settlements into something that is not newsworthy but rather, routine.”

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan similarly said, “We must stop treating residents of Judea and Samaria as second-class citizens. It’s unthinkable that only residents of Judea and Samaria need approval from the political echelon in order to build a home or a kindergarten.”

“After the last government froze thousands of housing units [in the West Bank], a need was created to restore the pace of work to that of the previous decade,” said Shlomo Ne’eman, the chairman of the Yesha umbrella settlement organization.

Opponents of the settlements issued intense criticism of the move, warning that Smotrich, as a powerful advocate for settlement expansion and a firm opponent of Palestinian statehood, would now be at liberty to massively increase construction in the settlements and legalize illegal outposts.

Palestinian demonstrators hurls stones at Israeli forces amid tear gas during clashes, as they protest Israeli Jewish settlements, in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“Decisions over new [settlement] construction have until now required approval at the political level and by the defense minister, since construction in the territories has security and diplomatic consequences of the highest order,” said Peace Now’s Yoni Mizrachi in a written opinion on the decision.

“Construction in the territories is designed to eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution and this is a political decision,” he continued, adding that such settlement expansion includes very real security considerations, such as where IDF forces need to be deployed in the West Bank, and the size of those forces.

“From a planning point of view, there is 1687094695 no difference between the Tel Aviv district and the Judea and Samaria, except for an initial decision by the political echelon,” protested Mizrachi.

“Israel is moving towards full annexation of the West Bank and does not intend to allow security or diplomatic considerations to stop it,” said Peace Now after the resolution was adopted.

“The government has decided to tie the fate of the residents of Israel to the messianic vision of endless settlements among millions of Palestinians whose rights are being trampled upon every morning. [Control over] planning has passed into Smotrich’s hands but the cost of construction will be borne by us all.”

The left-wing, anti-settlement Yesh Din organization said the amendment “puts the ability to expand and establish settlements into the hands of Smotrich’s people without any oversight.”

Israeli security forces in action while Palestinians protest against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in the Palestinian village of Haris, June 26, 2020. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Earlier on Sunday, Smotrich himself noted that the Higher Planning Committee of the Civil Administration, under his authority, is set to hold deliberations next week on the approval of some 4,560 housing units in the West Bank settlements.

Smotrich said these units, together with other planning projects advanced earlier this year, “make the six months since this government was formed a record for the rate of settlement construction [planning] in the last decade.”

Smotrich, who lives near the northern West Bank settlement of Kedumim, in a home built in violation of that settlement’s master plan, said: “The construction boom in Judea and Samaria and in all parts of our country continues. As we promised, today we are advancing the construction of thousands more new units in Judea and Samaria… We will continue to develop the settlements and strengthen Israel’s hold on the territory.”

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