Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant in the Knesset, December 20, 2022.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has decided that the authority over the Civil Administration would be transferred to Minister Bezalel Smotrich despite the opposition of Defense Minister Yoav Galant, Kan 11 reported Wednesday night.

Last Thursday night, The Or Haim outpost was established in Samaria, in memory of the spiritual leader of the Religious Zionist community, the late Rabbi Haim Drukman. The outpost was established by his grandson, Naveh Schindler, without permission from the government or the IDF.


To date, the destiny of “illegal outposts” has been determined by the Civil Administration, which represented the defense minister, who is the ultimate, singular sovereign in the “occupied territories.” However, the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism places the Civil Administration under the authority of Bezalel Smotrich who serves as an adjunct minister in the defense ministry.

But last Friday, in the spirit of “Coalition agreement? We don’t need no stinking coalition agreement,” a paraphrase on the immortal line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), some five hours after the Or Haim outpost was established, large Police and Border Guard forces, accompanied by inspectors of the Civil Administration, arrived at Or Haim and began demolishing the prefab structures evacuating the settlers – courtesy of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

It started the first coalition crisis between Likud and Religious Zionism. Smotrich (as well as his ally, Itamar Ben Gvir) sent urgent missives to Gallant, asking him to withdraw his demolition troops until Sunday when they could sit down and discuss the matter.

Over the past few decades, many unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria were taken down shortly after they had been erected, and when their settlers came back and built them again, they were taken down again, by increasing numbers of security forces, often unleashing unrestrained brutality. But a couple dozen such outposts have managed to survive, and are awaiting to be legally regulated by the Netanyahu “fully right” government.

Not this time. Or Haim was gone in short order – taken apart by local Arab workers who sang and laughed and had a great time (as was documented by Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Sonn Har Melech who responded by cursing them out).

For the record, last Friday, Netanyahu gave his full backing to Gallant and the Civil Administration under his command who are carrying out day and night the holy mission of protecting the country, yadda, yadda, yadda. So Smotrich read the PM the riot act. He boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting and threatened to be absent, together with his faction, from Knesset votes. Combined with the troubles he was already facing following the sacking of Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, Netanyahu was facing the possibility of temporarily losing 17 of his coalition members.

Here is one foundational fact about Netanyahu’s reality in the next four years: he succeeded in cobbling together a stable coalition, stable enough to last until the next legal election for the 26th Knesset, sometime in the spring of 2027. Netanyahu must remain in his post as MP throughout this period because he is facing three criminal indictments in a trial that will likely continue well into his current government. Retaining the PM’s office gives Netanyahu his best chance to survive his trial and verdict. He can’t afford coalition instability.

When Smotrich read him the riot act, Netanyahu didn’t think he was bluffing. He was fully aware that Smotrich was fully capable of walking away from his post as Finance Minister––taking his faction with him––if he were denied his other post, in the defense ministry. Netanyahu experienced playing chicken with Smotrich a little over a year ago when Netanyahu was ready to sign off on a coalition with Ra’am leader Mansur Abbas, but Smotrich refused adamantly to sit in the same government with an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. He declared he would rather sit in the opposition for as long as it takes (which turned out to be 18 months) – and dragged Netanyahu to the lesser benches with him. Since then, Netanyahu has known better than to try to call Smotrich’s bluff.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, adjunct Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and the coordinator of government operations in the territories, Major General Rasan Elian, met on January 12, 2023. / Religious Zionism

And so, the softer object for Netanyahu to step on turned out to be Yoav Gallant. The power struggle in the defense ministry reached its peak in a stormy debate in which Netanyahu, Gallant, Smotrich, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, senior IDF officers, and Netanyahu’s security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi participated. And gallant was told bluntly that the transfer of control over the Civil Administration to Smotrich would happen “with you or without you.”

According to Kan 11, Smotrich presented the outline that was decided in the coalition agreements and suggested that the civil powers be transferred to him, military powers will remain in the hands of the coordinator of government operations in the territories, and matters of illegal construction by Jews and Arabs will be handled by him, Smotrich. However, actions with security and policy ramifications will have to be approved by the Prime Minister.

The following amusing argument ensued, again, according to Kan 11:

Gallant: “I am the Minister of Defense, there can’t be two commanders of the army.”

Smotrich and Levin: “These are signed coalition agreements.”

Gallant: “You played for two months in front of an empty goal (soccer metaphor – DI), and nobody asked me.”

Netanyahu: “There is logic in Smotrich’s explanation.”

Senior IDF officers: “The decisions of the Civil Administration have security implications; they should remain under the authority of the Minister of Defense.”

Smotrich and Levin: “The measure will serve the settlement enterprise, and will not harm security. We are talking about border crossings, roads, and agriculture, there is no reason for the army to manage these decisions.”

Gallant: “I object. It won’t happen under my command.”

It’s amusing because it did. In the end, Smotrich was willing to give up everything to get his way, and Gallant wasn’t. It’s also amusing (the tragic kind of amusing) that this is the second time in Gallant’s career that he is led to the promised land only to be denied it. In September 2010, he was the candidate for the post of IDF Chief of Staff, his appointment had already been approved by Netanyahu’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, but was canceled at the last minute following a petition to the High Court of Justice and a State Comptroller’s report.

If ever there should be a card game featuring the members of this coalition, you should know: Smotrich beats Gallant.

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