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Israel’s rightward shift stokes alarm over threat to West Bank stability

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Proposals by Israel’s new far-right government for far-reaching changes to the administration of the occupied West Bank prompted warnings from opposition figures and Palestinian groups even before Benjamin Netanyahu officially returned as prime minister last week.

But an intervention by the head of the Israel Defense Forces underscored how those anxieties have also reached the top echelon of the Jewish state’s military.

Aviv Kochavi, IDF chief of general staff, used a call with Netanyahu last week to outline his concerns about proposals that include handing sweeping administrative responsibilities and control over Border Police forces in the territory to far-right politicians.

Current and former Israeli military officers stressed the impact these and other changes put forward in the coalition deals could have on the West Bank, where tensions were running high even before the new government took office. The officers said they could undermine the army’s chain of command and its combat readiness, and complicate the international legal status of Israel’s five-decade-long occupation of Palestinian territory and its diplomatic ties with the US and Europe.

Netanyahu and Kochavi agreed that any initiatives touching on military operations would be delayed until the government received a full briefing on the consequences, according to the IDF.

“It’s not for the military to decide on policy — that’s for the politicians. But it has to be done through serious strategic planning and not a hijacking via coalition talks,” said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser. The plans Netanyahu agreed in discussions with his new ultranationalist and religious coalition partners “could shatter the IDF’s entire strategy” for maintaining stability in the West Bank, he added.

The proposed changes were driven by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two far-right leaders from the political fringes who were given senior government jobs by Netanyahu to form his coalition.

Smotrich, an ardent supporter of West Bank settlement expansion, is Israel’s new finance minister, with an additional role inside the defence ministry. His responsibilities in the latter post are set to include control over two military bodies that govern the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Israeli settlers.

Smotrich has promised to legalise scores of Jewish settlements that even Israel officially deems illegal and to ramp up the demolition of Palestinian buildings and homes in parts of the territory still directly controlled by Israel. Most of the international community considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal.

Itamar Ben Gvir
Itamar Ben-Gvir greets supporters during a visit to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on December 30 2022 © Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Ben-Gvir, another pro-settler ultranationalist who was convicted for anti-Arab incitement in 2007, has been given expanded policing powers as part of his new role as national security minister. In an unusual move, the entirety of the Border Police, a force that operates under IDF command in the West Bank, is set to be placed under his direct control.

His willingness to challenge the status quo was underlined on Tuesday as he made a surprise visit to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The visit to a location that is historically a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian tensions was labelled “an unprecedented provocation” by the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry.

Former senior officers highlighted the chaos that may ensue inside the West Bank if an additional layer of civilian control is inserted into the administration of the territory, including on security co-ordination with the Palestinian Authority.

“The IDF since its inception has operated according to one simple idea: unity of command that’s very clearly delineated,” said Amos Gilead, a retired general and former director of the defence ministry’s political bureau. “This [plan] is like having one carriage with four horses pulling in different directions. It can’t work.”

A possible shift by Ben-Gvir in the use and deployment of the Border Police, the main security force in the West Bank tasked with countering Palestinian demonstrations and Israeli settler unrest, is another cause for anxiety. One reported idea is to remove the force entirely from the West Bank, raising the prospect of the IDF having to use regular soldiers or reservists to police civilian populations, an idea Gilead said was “completely unacceptable”.

Benny Gantz, the outgoing defence minister and a former IDF chief, last week said it was “predictable” that the coalition deal proposals would harm stability on the West Bank, adding that the military was already preparing for a possible escalation and that “blood may be spilled”.

Former senior officers also stressed the international legal harm that could befall Israel by shifting the two military bodies that have historically administered the West Bank under Smotrich’s civilian oversight. Ever since occupying the West Bank during the 1967 war, Israel’s official position on the territory has been one of “temporary” military rule that awaits a political resolution.

“You could see increased international pressure and delegitimisation campaigns against Israel, especially if you have increased benefits to the [Israeli] settlers and a heavy hand against Palestinians,” Eiland said. “It could be seen as de facto annexation, with the army at the forefront.”

A further concern for analysts related to additional plans by the new government to overhaul the Israeli judicial system, which critics say would weaken the independence of the Supreme Court. That could damage the military and bring officers into legal jeopardy internationally.

“The existence of a strong and credible domestic legal system, including inside the IDF, has been the main argument used by Israel to halt decisions by foreign courts and international investigations against officers suspected of violating international law,” added Eiland.

Taken together, the proposed changes posed a threat to Israel’s standing in western capitals and among Arab states, according to the former officers.

The US has in recent days re-emphasised its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “opposition to policies that endanger its viability”. Gilead stressed how it was vital to keep US president Joe Biden onside, citing American support as a key asset, notably in relation to the threat posed by Iran.

“Israel’s national security is a combination of military strength and strategic wisdom as well as our diplomatic ties, especially with the US. My concern is that the new government’s proposals could cause damage to all of them,” he said.

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