New Coalition Agreement Will Transfer Some of Civil Administration’s Powers to Smotrich
Whether the Finance Ministry’s authority will extend only to Israeli civilians in the West Bank or will include full control of the Civil Administration division has yet to be confirmed
Israel’s Prime Minister-designate Binyanim Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, announced Thursday that he had signed a coalition agreement with Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionism party. As part of the deal, some or all of the powers of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit and its Civil Administration division in the West Bank, which currently operate under the Defense Ministry, will be transferred to the Finance Ministry that Smotrich is expected to head.
The Civil Administration is a division of COGAT, which operates within the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command. It is responsible for the coordination and communication with the Palestinian Authority and is entrusted with the implementation of all Israeli civil policies in the West Bank.
The Civil Administration operates primarily in the parts of the West Bank that are designated as Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control). The division of the territory into Areas A, B, and C was set out in the 1995 Oslo II Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Area A, where the major Palestinian cities lie, is under full Palestinian civil and security administration. In Area B, which mostly comprises smaller Palestinian towns, the Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction over the civil administration, while security remains the responsibility of the Israeli military.
The unit coordinates with the Palestinian Authority’s bodies on issues such as health, finance, and infrastructure, among others. It is also responsible for issuing work and humanitarian entry permits for Palestinians who need to enter Israel, security coordination with the PA’s security apparatus, coordination with international organizations that operate in the region, and approving construction plans in Palestinian and Jewish towns, as well as policing illegal construction in Area C.
Although no official statement has been released defining exactly what Civil Administration powers are to be handed over to the Finance Ministry, Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, the founder and CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), believes that they mainly will have to do with the Israeli civilians in the West Bank.
“I think that is part of the process that Smotrich is pushing forward. It’s not about the responsibilities of COGAT toward the Palestinians, it’s all about Israeli towns and Israeli civilian issues,” he tells The Media Line.
Originally, he explains, the idea of that unit was to deal with everything related to coordination with the Palestinians in the territories. Historically, he says, “you had COGAT in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority.”
However, “because Israel has not applied its law in areas where the Israeli civilians live [in the West Bank], the law in the same areas is still the military law. So, we live in a reality where COGAT is not only managing things that have to do with the Palestinians but also civilian issues of Israeli citizens,” he says.
He describes this as an anomaly “because, at the end of the day, you have army personnel managing civilian issues for Israeli civilians,” he adds.
However, Yohanan Tzoreff, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Palestinian affairs, tells The Media Line that the Finance Ministry could be given jurisdiction over additional COGAT responsibilities rather than limiting its authority to issues involving Israeli civilians.
He believes that dividing the Civil Administration’s responsibilities between the Finance and Defense ministries could cause conflicts between them, leading to tensions within the government.
Avivi says the real question is, what will happen with the issue of coordination with the Palestinians? This, he believes, must remain under the Defense Ministry.
It remains unclear how the Civil Administration’s responsibilities will be divided, he says; it is currently in charge of “two very different missions,” referring to its jurisdiction over the Israeli civilians in the West Bank, and the coordination with the PA.
The Finance Ministry, he says, “is not supposed to deal with the coordination, and especially not the security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, but I don’t think that this is what interests Smotrich.”
However, he says, it doesn’t make sense that the Defense Ministry deals with Israeli civilians. “We are a democracy, not a military state. In this sense, I don’t think transferring issues that have to do with Israeli civilians [to the Finance Ministry] is a problem,” he adds.
Tzoreff notes that according to Israeli policy since 1967, all the territories in the West Bank except East Jerusalem are considered disputed territories. “It’s a ruling of the Supreme Court of Israel,” he says.
Israel hasn’t annexed these territories, which means they are not part of its sovereign territory, he explains.
“If the Finance Ministry is going to get any responsibility of any kind inside the territories, a lot of actors in the international community will consider this some kind of annexation,” he notes, adding that he believes it will lead to a very complicated situation for Israel in the international arena.
Likewise, Tzoreff adds that the Palestinian Authority could interpret this as a breach of the understanding that it has with Israel, and that it could increase tension between both and pose problems for the existing coordination.
Avivi, however, says that from the IDSF’s perspective, transferring the authority over Israeli civilians in the West Bank to an Israeli civilian ministry could be a necessary development. “We think it’s time for new, thinking-out-of-the-box solutions,” he says.
Looking at Israel’s overall national security needs, he adds, speaking in the name of his organization, “We think professionally that Israel cannot exist without the presence of towns in the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and in this sense, we are supportive of applying our sovereignty to these areas, but we are also supportive of keeping Palestinian self-governance as they have today in the areas they control.”
Avivi adds that, due to the nature of the government, which is right-wing, it is natural that they would want to apply sovereignty over Area C.
However, Tzoreff says, a significant portion of the Israeli public opposes this. “The Israeli street is not going to be so silent.”