Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday night found a way out of what was shaping up to be a serious coalition crisis, after Netanyahu demanded that Bennett either apologize for his recent bitter criticism or leave the government.
Bennett addressed his earlier remarks on Wednesday afternoon, saying he never intended to insult the prime minister.
“There are people who are trying to turn a significant debate about the future of our land and its security into a personal attack that never happened, and if the prime minister was insulted, that was not my intention,” Bennett said at a conference by the Dead Sea. “I respect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his leadership under difficult conditions, support him when needed and criticize him when needed, because that is my responsibility.”
Still, the Bayit Yehudi chairman repeated that “imposing Palestinian sovereignty on Israeli citizens is dangerous, and it was my responsibility to take this idea off the agenda immediately.”
Bennett defended his right to criticize Netanyahu. In fact, senior sources in Bayit Yehudi insisted he did not apologize at all, but sources close to the prime minister accepted it as an apology.
Bennett’s statements on Wednesday came less than an hour after the Prime Minister’s Office issued an ultimatum via the press: Either Bennett apologizes by 10 a.m. Sunday, or he is out of the government.
“Bennett’s dismissal letter was ready; the ultimatum worked faster than we thought it would,” sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Clearly not wanting to give the Bayit Yehudi leader any extra points in the crisis, the source said the party’s Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel led the effort to convince Bennett to apologize.
Earlier on Wednesday, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office and Bayit Yehudi did not deny that Bennett’s harsh censure of Netanyahu’s suggestion that settlements may come under Palestinian rule in a future agreement triggered a coalition crisis.
During a fiery speech on Tuesday night, Bennett harshly denounced the idea of leaving Jews under Palestinian sovereignty, saying Palestinians would kill them. He also declared that “our forefathers and the descendants of our descendants will not forgive an Israeli leader who gives up our land and divides our capital.”
The sources close to Netanyahu said that “no one will teach Netanyahu what is the love of Israel, or what is necessary for Israel’s security.” The sources said that with all of Bennett’s criticism, it was not clear why he was “sticking to his government seat.”
“His chutzpah and his irresponsible style will not pass quietly,” the sources said. They added that Bennett was harming the interests of the settlements, and that Netanyahu had other coalition alternatives.
Even without Bennett in the government, the sources said, Netanyahu would continue to look after the interests of the settlements and the security of the country’s citizens.
Ariel, who is generally much more understated than Bennett, acknowledged that the latter’s remarks triggered a political crisis.
Ariel said in a Wednesday morning Israel Radio interview, foreshadowing Bennett’s comments in the evening, that the substantive disagreements that exist between Bayit Yehudi and Netanyahu did not have to become personal. “If someone was insulted, I think this is not good, and if it was me I would apologize,” he said.
Ariel said that he was working on the issue and encouraging the sides to talk. “Talk generally is good for both sides,” he said. He expressed regret that this disagreement was taking place via the microphones.
Bennett’s close political ally in his party, MK Ayelet Shaked, also tried to defuse the explosive issue, telling Israel Radio that Bennett had not attacked Netanyahu, but rather the idea of leaving settlements under Palestinian rule.
“Minister Bennett never personally insulted the prime minister,” she said, adding that Bennett respects Netanyahu.
“Minister Bennett feels obligated to burst a trial balloon that was released into the air. On an ideological and substantive level we think that placing Jewish communities under Palestinian rule is dangerous and un-Zionistic.”
“We won’t apologize, but we’ll send a message of compromise,” a senior Bayit Yehudi source said in the afternoon, adding that Bennett was working on the message’s wording.
A source close to Ariel said “this isn’t the kind of thing that takes down governments, but there’s still room for concern. This can get blown out of proportion and become a real crisis.”
The Likud seems less concerned about a crisis, with a senior party source calling this “a chance for Netanyahu to really hit Bennett hard.”
Still, Transportation Minister Israel Katz of the Likud encouraged Bennett to apologize, writing on Facebook: “Naftali my friend, because we have similar stances, I call on you to apologize to the prime minister. The argument over where Jews will live following a future treaty is pointless.
Only yesterday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated his position that any agreement must include a ‘just solution’ for five million Palestinian refugees to have the ‘right of return,’ and Jerusalem, including the Old City, will be the Palestinian capital. With stances like that, there’s no chance for an agreement, so why be disruptive?” Danny Dayan, chief foreign envoy for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, wrote on Facebook that Bennett should apologize because it was the decent thing to do.
“You picked the wrong reason to take to the barricades. If, God forbid, the land will be split, it will be the right of Jews to live in any part of the Land of Israel. Apologize, because Bayit Yehudi has a lot more to contribute in the government, and it would be unfortunate for them to stop,” Dayan wrote.
The crisis erupted on Sunday evening when Bennett posted the following on his Facebook page: “The idea of Jewish settlements under Palestinian sovereignty, as has come out from the Prime Minister’s Office, is very dangerous and reflects an irrationality of values.
We did not return to the Land of Israel, after 2,000 years of longing, to live under the government of Mahmoud Abbas.
Whoever advocates for the idea of Jewish life in Israel under Palestinian rule is undermining our ability to sit in Tel Aviv. I call on the prime minister to immediately repudiate this dangerous proposal.”
Netanyahu has made no attempt to back away from the idea, though sources close to Netanyahu said it was meant to “unmask” the true face of the Palestinian Authority, which they said would never accept Jews living in areas under its control.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), who is leading the current negotiations with the Palestinians and is frequently at high-decibel odds with Bennett, took to her Facebook page on Wednesday to sarcastically denounce Bennett’s speech.
After saying she regretted that a ministerial meeting that was scheduled to take place that day to deal with the issue of boycotts against Israel was canceled, she said it was a shame because – after listening to Bennett’s speech – a new marketing campaign for Israel could have been developed.
“Imagine photographs of our good children from the ‘hilltop youth’ engaged in various ‘price-tag attacks,’” she wrote.
“Okay, maybe not price-tag attacks on convents and churches, because that would not be nice. The caption would read: ‘Israel decided – sovereignty over everything.’” Or, she suggested, “This is not South Africa. Here the Palestinians are not second-class citizens; they are simply not citizens at all.”
Bennett, in his speech on Tuesday, slammed Livni – though he did not mention her by name – for constantly warning about boycotts.
“They are scaring us that we are standing in front of [economic] collapse,” he said, before ticking off a list of positive economic developments.
“The problem today begins from inside. From within they are screaming ‘boycotts, boycotts,’ something that in the end will indeed bring upon us boycotts. That is not the way to carry out negotiations, running around the world afraid.”
Meanwhile, the Samaria Residents Council organized a protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, in which an actor playing Netanyahu rebuked others, playing Bennett and Likud deputy ministers who oppose a two-state plan.
Passersby were able to ask the faux-Netanyahu to reprimand them and received certificates that said, “I, too, was rebuked by the prime minister for protecting the Land of Israel and the security of its citizens.”
Speaking at an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) asked: “What does Bennett have to offer other than serious incitement?” “Bennett’s vision is a binational state. Naftali Bennett, you and your friends have become the father of the binational state. It will be registered under your names. You may not want it, but you are undermining the foundations of the Jewish people’s home. You are the real post-Zionists. You are the real threat to 2,000 years of longing for a Jewish state. You are denying reality, closing your eyes and lying to the public,” Herzog said.