Israeli pro-settler minister formally given powers in West Bank
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A far-right Israeli cabinet minister on Thursday officially assumed responsibility for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which he said bring their legal status closer to that of communities inside Israel.
Treasury Secretary Bezalel Smotrich is performing a settler oversight role at the Defense Department as part of his coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading to increased US focus on Israeli policy in the West Bank.
A 14-point statement issued by Smotrich after agreeing on roles with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed that “legislation in all (settlement) civil matters will be brought into line with Israeli law.” .
When asked to elaborate, a Smotrich spokesman said, “Equal application of relevant laws – labor, environment, etc. – made in Israel Minor.”
“Little Israel” is a term used by ultra-nationalists like Smotrich – settlers themselves – who seek the annexation of the West Bank, a biblical and strategic area captured in a 1967 war.
“All settlements are illegal and any attempt by Israel to legalize or annex these settlements is opposed and in violation of international resolutions,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States has reiterated its decades-old calls for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and called for restraint after a surge in violence in the West Bank, which Palestinians want as the nucleus of a future state.
Washington has also urged Israel not to expand settlements that most world powers deem illegal.
Smotrich said he would also now have “total responsibility” for zoning, surveying and selling land in the West Bank to settlers, who number around half a million among the 3.1 million Palestinians.
Netanyahu confirmed the Smotrich-Gallant deal and said it was in line with coalition agreements.
Netanyahu said in 2019 that he would annex the West Bank settlements – alarming the West and prompting the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to forge ties with Israel a year later in exchange for the prime minister shelving the territorial plan.
The platform of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party calls for advancing West Bank settlements in the face of “a complex US government” by focusing dialogue on “the extent of sovereignty that Israel will assert and the extent of construction and retrospective approval (of unsanctioned settler outpost)”. .
If formal annexation is not possible due to US resistance, she adds, “the de facto claim of sovereignty should be pursued.”
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Potter)