File photo: Israeli right-wing Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich look on during the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel s parliament, in Jerusalem in November. AP
The draft decision transfers the authority to give initial approval for the construction of new settlements – the most important hurdle to expansion – from the minister of defense to the minister of finance.
Smotrich, the current finance minister, is the leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party and an advocate of settlement expansion. He is also known for making controversial statements, including denying the existence of a Palestinian people.
In addition, several new changes are expected to speed up the process after initial approval is obtained, Israeli media reported.
Proposals can now be submitted to Israel's Supreme Planning Council without prior political approval.
Previously, the prime minister and minister of national security were required to approve construction at five different phases, covering planning through construction.
Now, government approval will only be required for the first two phases: planning and bidding.
According to Israeli media, the goal of the draft decision is to make it easier to approve settlement construction in the Palestinian territories, considered illegal measures under international law, as is the case in areas that fall under Israeli control based on the 1948 borders.
The move has drawn condemnation from Palestinian officials and human rights organizations.
The Palestinian foreign ministry has called for "real international and American action" against the decision facilitating the “quiet, noiseless” approval of settlement projects, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.
Hussein Al Sheikh, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) executive committee, announced on Twitter it will boycott a Monday meeting of the Higher Economic Committee scheduled with the Israelis in light of the move, and said the Palestinians are looking at other measures to take in response.
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed a new two-year budget that clears the way to press ahead with its religious, pro-settlement agenda.
The new budget has been criticized for allocating nearly $4 billion in discretionary funds, much of it for ultra-Orthodox and pro-settler parties.
The funds also include tens of millions of dollars for hard-line pro-settler parties to promote pet projects through the ministries they control.
Smotrich, who also serves as a minister in the defense ministry, has said he hopes to double the population of West Bank settlers in the coming years.