The Most Irresponsible Man in Israel
Among the various crises that Israel is juggling post-October 7 is a financial one. Israel’s economy had been on a downturn all year under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, widely tied to his judicial overhaul plans that had spurred warnings from Israel’s central bank and many of its high-tech leaders and spooked outside investors. As with many things, October 7 deepened an existing problem, and Israel is now saddled with the added costs of prosecuting a war, managing an economy that has over 300,000 reservists who were pulled from the workforce, providing for the quarter-million Israelis who have been forced to evacuate communities along the Gaza and Lebanese borders, and looking ahead to reconstruction costs.
Netanyahu’s government is hoping that some of this burden will be borne by the United States. Israel is still waiting for Congress to pass a $14 billion emergency security assistance package that will provide Israel with more Iron Dome interceptors, missile defense launchers, smart bombs, and other munitions. Israel is also waiting to see whether new restrictions will be placed on this assistance; President Joe Biden appeared to refer to conditioning security assistance to Israel as “a worthwhile thought” during a press conference on Friday, and several Democratic lawmakers have in recent weeks either directly called for conditioning assistance to Israel or referenced a desire to ensure anew that Israel is complying with existing laws and human rights standards in its Gaza military campaign.
While much of the focus has been on the high casualty rate in Gaza and the extensive damage from the IDF’s bombing campaign, there have also been long-standing concerns over Israeli policy in the West Bank. Through the weekend, 231 Palestinians—over 150 of them estimated to be civilians—have been killed in the West Bank since October 7, and violence against Palestinians by extremist settlers who are often accompanied by IDF reservists has skyrocketed. The more extreme wing of the settler movement has also taken advantage of Israel’s general distraction in Gaza to ramp up building new illegal outposts and illegally paving new unapproved roads, while also threatening Palestinians living in Area C and preventing them from accessing their farmland in an effort to get them to vacate their villages. To date, approximately 900 Palestinians have abandoned their homes since October 7, and the United Nations estimates that 50% of Palestinian farming land in the West Bank went unharvested this year.
This has left the U.S.—as evidenced by increasing public statements from Biden, other administration officials, and members of Congress expressing concerns over Israel’s conduct of the war and West Bank settler violence—in a difficult position. There is a tricky balance between wanting to give Israel the support it needs and deserves in its fight against a terrorist group that is still holding over 160 Israeli hostages while also wanting to rein in Israeli actions that, in the U.S. view, cross a line and shape the coming military campaign in southern Gaza in a way that better protects Palestinian civilians.
Into all of this steps Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and minister overseeing Israeli civilian activity in the West Bank. Smotrich is in charge of the budget, which must be amended to deal with the current emergency, and the obvious way to support Israel’s military campaign is to repurpose the entirety of the $675 million remaining in coalition discretionary funds—effectively money allocated to the parties in the coalition to use for their political priorities as they see fit—for war-related purposes.
But Smotrich was unwilling to do that. Instead, he held back nearly $250 million, with $105 million going to undetailed security needs in the West Bank and tens of millions more going to general West Bank settlement projects. This is days after Smotrich said that the large security expenditure for the West Bank was needed because “there are 2 million Nazis” in the territory, and three weeks after he called for the Palestinian olive harvest to be canceled with IDF enforcement and for the creation of Palestinian-free buffer zones in the West Bank around both settlements and roads.
The conspiracy theory that the Israeli government is seeking to create a second Palestinian nakba is largely nonsense, despite being driven in part by irresponsible Israeli ministers—largely and thankfully powerless ones—who either harbor fantasies of returning to Gaza or whose Pavlovian response to a television camera is to say the most provocative thing that comes to mind in the hopes of being featured for seven seconds on a nightly broadcast. But Smotrich does want a second mass displacement of Palestinians, and he wants it in the West Bank.
It is why he wants to treat the Palestinian Authority as if it is identical to Hamas, why he wants to put as many Israelis as possible surrounding Palestinian population centers, why he wants illegal outposts dotting every hilltop next to Palestinian villages in the more remote corners of Area C, why he wants settlers to be armed to the teeth and forming their own security teams outside of direct IDF purview, and why he wants Palestinians to be afraid to leave their homes or work their olive groves. He is doubling down on the settlement project, and even more saliently attempting to link it to preventing a Gaza-type future for the West Bank, when in reality what he is doing is pushing Palestinians in the West Bank closer to the brink and driving them directly into embracing Hamas as a way of fighting back.
Even more irresponsibly, he is doing this while questions about Israeli behavior are bubbling up in Washington in unprecedented ways. Passing a budget that makes settler violence going forward even likelier and more widespread—which is what creating unaccountable and unsupervised civilian security teams, funneling them arms, and erecting more checkpoints will absolutely do—while Israel is fighting a war in Gaza that is going to have a high Palestinian casualty count compounds the calls to reexamine the U.S.-Israel security relationship. It is implausible that U.S. weapons will not end up in the hands of these settlement security squads despite an Israeli promise that they won’t, and Smotrich either doesn’t understand the way in which the Washington environment is changing or he arrogantly thinks that it doesn’t matter.
While the administration and the overwhelming majority of Congress sympathize with Israel and want to support Israeli security, that is not going to translate into a blank check for Israel to do anything it wants, a fact that is going to become even more evident as the temporary pause in the fighting expires and Israel struggles with how to conduct an effective military operation in an even more crowded southern Gaza. While many in Israel are ignoring what’s going on in the West Bank, Washington is not. Smotrich is attempting to carry out a revolution that fulfills his wildest West Bank expansionist dreams at a time when Israel can least afford to lose American policymakers who are uncomfortable with Israel’s post-October 7 response in Gaza, uncomfortable with Israeli policies in the West Bank writ large, and are sitting on the fence.
The past seven days have been the most hopeful for Israel since October 7. 70 Israelis were released from a nightmare, allowing them and their families to start what will be a painful healing process even as many of them still have parents being held captive by Hamas or return home as orphans. Israelis got a respite from rocket fire and air raid sirens. Palestinians in Gaza received an influx of desperately needed humanitarian aid, even while far more is needed, and did not have to worry about where to go to escape IDF strikes targeting their Hamas overlords who hold them captive as well.
Nobody deserves an Israeli finance minister who is trying his utmost to spark crises with the U.S. and with another three million Palestinians in the West Bank. If the day comes in the not-too-distant future when U.S. assistance to Israel is drastically curtailed, comes with new sets of restrictions and conditions, or is the subject of suspensions and investigations, Israelis can thank Smotrich, the godfather of not only looking a gift horse in the mouth but shooting it in the face.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.