Smotrich may give up Defense portfolio for Israel Lands Authority

The Authority is in charge of allocating the 93% of land in Israel that is state-owned, thus wielding a huge influence on housing prices.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Religious Zionist party (RZP) head MK Bezalel Smotrich may be willing to give up the Defense portfolio in exchange for control over the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), Ma’ariv reported Thursday morning.

Sources involved in the coalition negotiations told the Hebrew paper that among the reasons the right-wing MK wants to head the Authority is that he wants to help strengthen the Jewish presence in the Negev and Galilee by lowering the cost of land there to the rate paid by Arabs.

The report did not say why prices for the Arab sector are lower.

The ILA is in charge of the 93% of land in Israel that is owned by the state, managing its allocation for housing, agriculture and businesses. Real estate experts say that one of the most important reasons apartment prices are so high in Israel is that the ILA is slow to release land for sale to building contractors, thus limiting the supply – and automatically raising the demand.

Right-wing  organizations have pointed out that if the government allowed freer construction in Judea and Samaria, housing prices would plummet in the center of the country, where most people want to live.

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“It’s a tough battle and Smotrich knows how to fight battles like these,” the sources told the paper. “He would only move off his demand for either the Defense or Finance ministry if he hears the words ‘Israel Lands Authority.’”

Shas head Aryeh Deri is also currently demanding the Finance Ministry portfolio. The top three are considered to be Finance, Foreign, and Defense ministries and Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy pressure from his own party not to give two of the troika away.

Another consideration is that the Biden administration has made it clear that it would be unhappy with Smotrich as defense minister and may not work with him, considering his utter rejection of negotiations with the Palestinians and his desire to expand Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria.

The sources told Ma’ariv that handing over the ILA plum could be supplemented by giving the RZP the Transportation and National Infrastructure ministries, and control over the energy and water sectors, in order to make it an attractive enough package for the second-largest party in the coalition to give up on the Defense post.

One difficulty with this idea is that the other religious party in the proposed coalition, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), has made control of the ILA a deal-breaker. The Authority is traditionally part of the Housing and Construction Ministry, which will be under UTJ’s purview.

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Likud sources said that UTJ would be offered “generous compensation” if it would relent, including an additional ministry.

Meanwhile, the Likud has reportedly bowed to several of the demands of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of Smotrich’s partner faction, Otzma Yehudit.

Regarding Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu agreed Wednesday to enact a bill legalizing and regulating dozens of young settlements within 60 days of the government’s formation, amend the Disengagement Law so that the Homesh yeshiva will not be under constant threat of demolition, and follow through the previous government’s deal with the residents of the nascent village of Evyatar to allow them to build on the part of the land that the government agreed was state-owned.

The government will also add a required minimum sentence for agricultural crimes and those demanding “protection” money from hapless business and farm owners. To better protect soldiers and army bases, the Dromi Law will be expanded to include them as well. This 2010 law considers armed opposition to those breaking into homes and farms with criminal intent as self-defense, so soldiers will not be under threat of arrest for defending themselves on base.