COGAT to Change Hands: Strategic Implications
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | December, 2022
Since its establishment – shortly after the 1967 Six Day War – the status of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has been extraordinary: It is primarily based on military officials (including its leadership), but subject to the Minister of Defense and focuses on civilian issues, most of which pertain to the life of the Palestinian population in the territories. This greatly reflects the ongoing Israeli decision to remain indecisive on the territories, and the desire to retain complete control in these areas while ensuring that the needs of the Palestinian public are met.
Two historical milestones have shaped COGAT. The first, in 1981, was the inception of the Israeli Civilian Administration (ICA) against the backdrop of the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt that included plans to establish a Palestinian autonomy in the territories. The ICA was separated from the military administration, and aimed to serve as a nucleus for the Palestinian self-government. The second was the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, when Israeli rule in city centers ceased, its extensive areas of responsibility in the territories were limited, a mechanism for civilian- and security-related coordination with the Palestinian government was put in place, and the ICA in Gaza dissolved as Israel ceased to control the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip directly (in the West Bank control was maintained in B and C areas).
COGAT is, in effect, Israel’s authorized representative in the territories – an arena whose status has remained undefined for 55 years. This unit is responsible for the range of actions enabling civilian fabric of life in the West Bank (and, to a more limited extent, the Gaza Strip): From ensuring that basic needs are met and essential civilian infrastructures are operated (water, electricity, gas, cellular, mail, etc.), through issuing working permits, trade, and steps taken in areas such as industry and finance, to coordinating actions with the Palestinian security system. In addition, it also provides services to the Israeli population living in the West Bank (approximately 480,000 people), and coordinates the actions of foreign entities operating in the territories (diplomats, aid organizations, media outlets, religious organizations, etc.). COGAT therefore plays a fundamental role in life in the territories and the preservation of strategic stability in this arena.
The emerging change in both COGAT and the ICA’s organizational structures as part of the incoming government, whereby they will be subordinate to the Minister of Finance or a minister appointed by said minister who will operate under the Ministry of Defense), is not a symbolic shift but a step that has strategic implications. It is the first and only change to date in these units’ organizational leadership since their inception, whereby they will no longer be under the responsibility of the Minister of Defense – who is also in command of the IDF, therefore enabling close coordination between the minister and COGAT – and will, instead, be reporting to a minister who is not in charge of security-related issues.
Such a step is expected to have three key strategic implications:
- A gap in command and control due to the fact that an organization that is based on and headed by military officials will be subordinate to a non-security ministerial authority. The continued coordination with the Minister of Defense and promise that the Prime Minister will serve as the ultimate authority that approves steps in the Palestinian context may reduce some of the expected tensions and gaps; however, they will not entirely eliminate them, and the latter could cause a range of issues on the security, political, and civilian levels.
- A gap vis-à-vis the Palestinians in view of the change in address on the Israeli side, and the (plausible) possibility that the minister in charge of COGAT from the Religious Zionism Party will engage less in coordination with the Palestinian Authority than their predecessors. The possible split of COGAT areas of responsibility between promoting construction and development in Israeli communities (an area on which the incoming Minister of Finance - Bezalel Smotrich - will probably focus) and coordinating with the Palestinians (which may remain in the hands of the Ministry of Defense) could lead to severe miscommunication both within the Israeli system and between it and the Palestinians.
- Discontent among the international community, particularly if COGAT’s actions under its new organizational structure would focus on extensive development of construction in Israeli communities, thereby providing support for the accusations already being made against Israel by political western parties, whereby the organizational shift agreed upon is expected to enable the de facto annexation of parts of the territories - namely in Area C - regardless of whether or not it has been preceded by official announcements or ordered legislation.
Ostensibly, this agreed organizational restructuring is supposed to address profound and longstanding dilemmas associated with the Israeli policy regarding the territories and the status of Israeli law there. The argument whereby Israeli citizens living outside the green line are entitled to services similar to those rendered to other Israeli citizens, and that it makes no sense for a military body to provide them instead of a civilian one, is indeed worthy of discussion. However, a rapid, sharp transition in a reality that has remained the same for over half a century – in the absence of profound strategic planning and thinking – will cause tremendous damage to Israel strategically.
Moreover, the organizational restructuring offers a disguised circumvention of a heavier issue in need of discussion and decision making: Does Israel intend to assert its sovereignty on some/all the territories in keeping with one of the key objectives defined by the Religious Zionism Party (the leaders of which have stated their desire to dissolve the ICA on numerous occasions in recent years as a step on the road to sovereignty assertion).
The incoming government has ideology and vision, as well as goals derived from them that it wishes to achieve; however, it must also recognize the explosiveness that currently characterizes the Palestinian system, which could evolve into an acute strategic threat. Making far-reaching changes soon after its formation, particularly the promotion of comprehensive construction, modifications to the legal status of communities or areas in the territories, or imposing of restrictions/punitive measures on the Palestinian Authority, could lead to a more aggravated escalation than the one witnessed over the last six months in the West Bank – especially its northern part.
We recommend that the incoming government – at least during its first months in office – adhere to the preservation of the current state of affairs instead of engaging in rapid change, particularly with regard to Temple Mount, its attitude toward the Palestinian Authority (refraining from declaring its desire to lead to the PA’s collapse, and certainly avoiding taking any steps in that direction), or any economic restrictions that would take a toll on the Palestinian public’s fabric of life, leading it to join the circle of violence – a development that, to date, Israel has successfully prevented using economic levers.
The incoming government will be required to exhibit a multidimensional understanding of the Palestinian context, at the heart of which should be the recognition that any destabilization of current circumstances in the West Bank may be quickly translated into negative projections on other arenas, such as the Gaza Strip and Israeli Arab public, but also create obstacles in Israel’s ties with the international community to the point of causing detriment to its political status and image, as well as impeding its ability to focus on the Iranian threat – particularly in the context of nuclear – or advance steps by which to address it.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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